It's not easy turning a 300-plus-page, densely written classic novel into a 2-1/2 hour film. It's even harder to compete with its beloved 11-hour television adaptation. And so director Julian Jarrold's attempt to bring Brideshead Revisited to the big screen gets an "A" for effort. Unfortunately, art-house audiences don't come out for effort.
Handsomely mounted and beautifully shot, Jarrold's film makes some brave changes to the story but miscasts the role of Lady Marchmain and neuters the protagonist's homosexual underpinnings in favor of a predictable tale of hetero-romance thwarted.
For those unfamiliar with the novel or miniseries, Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a middle-class Oxford student and aspiring painter who befriends the aristocratic but mercurial Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a closeted homosexual from a devoutly Catholic family. Desperate to hide his gay shame, Sebastion gets drunk a lot and pines for ambivalent Charles' love.
Invited to the family's swish estate, Charles is smitten by both the grandeur of the place and (in a switch from the novel) Sebastian's younger sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell). Asked by Lady Marchmain Flyte (Emma Thompson) to look after her son while traveling in Venice, Charles seizes the opportunity to make a play for Julia, leaving poor Sebastian to fall into a spiral of despair after he realizes he's lost his special "friend." Meanwhile atheist Charles' blossoming romance struggles against the immovable force of Julia's religion, jeopardizing his best chance at elevating his class and securing true love.
For all Brideshead Revisited's longing, guilt and despair, the whole enterprise is surprisingly unaffecting. Jarrold's decided shift away from Charles' is-he/isn't-he homosexuality is as confused as Evelyn Waugh's uptight ideas about sex and religion. All the curled lips in the world can't make up for a story that keeps us at arm's length.
Waugh, who converted to Catholicism then wrote the novel based on his own middle-class experiences at Oxford, went on in his later years to reject its autobiographical foundations by writing, "I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they." The contradiction of a devoutly Catholic writer creating a godless, homo-ambiguous alter ego gives the novel a delicious subtext that's missing from the film adaptation.
Instead, Charles is simply a bland cipher; passively watching as each member of the Brideshead tribe is pulled back or undone by religion. The screenplay by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies manages to hit all the mileposts in Waugh's book but misses the heart and struggle behind the words. It seems that Waugh's conflicting impulses only confused the writers, and so they turned its quiet tug-of-war between human longing and divine love into a conventionally lopsided love triangle — where he loves him and he loves her and she ... ends up loving the bearded guy in the sky. Love stinks, indeed.
The cast is a mixed bag. Matthew Goode, who showed so much brutal charisma in The Lookout, is handsome but stilted. Whishaw chews the scenery but creates an engaging and delicately self-destructive character that is, frankly, too good for bland Charles. Michael Gambon brings a good dose of class and twinkle as the Flyte's ne'er-do-well patriarch and Atwell makes for some nice eye-candy.
It's Emma Thompson, however, who stumbles as the lady of the manor. Where Marchmain's character requires seductive ferocity and a brittle sense of control, Thompson is kindly and sensible, almost too contemporary. Her character is benignly rigid rather than subtly soul-damning, and so it's hard to connect the family's dysfunction to her religious tyranny. It's not that Thompson is a bad actress, it's that she's simply wrong for the part — a part that's been pruned back from its pivotal role in the book to a marginal role in the film.
And that's Brideshead Revisited's biggest problem; trying to consolidate its sprawling narrative, conflicted characters and Waugh's confused themes into a satisfying night at the movies. Those unfamiliar with the source material but with a penchant for Merchant and Ivory productions will probably enjoy the film. For everyone else it's a little too mannered, tasteful and well-behaved to make an impact.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.