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Who can understand the strange bond between a boy and his teddy bear? It’s a question for the ages, really. The answer sees a little of the light of day in Brideshead Revisited. Adapted from the classic by Evelyn Waugh and previously filmed as a popular BBC television series that catapulted Jeremy Irons’ rising star, the big-screen version of Brideshead Revisited focuses its eye sharply on the distinctions of class, wealth, religion and sexuality more unflinchingly than its predecessors.

Charles Ryder is off to Oxford. The announcement is greeted with a typically bemused reception by Charles’s aloof, distracted father, whose only compliments to his son are backhanded. From the dark, oppressive, tschotke-laden Ryder abode, Charles ascends into the bright sun of Oxford like a butterfly from its cocoon. His emergence isn’t lost on one Sebastian Flyte, who immediately sets about seducing the handsome Ryder with lavish floral arrangements and witty discourse. The youngest son of Lord and Lady Marchmain, Sebastian feels entombed by his world of privilege and self-imposed isolation. Charles accepts the impulsive, eccentric dandy as is, and Sebastian returns the esteem with adulation and near adoption, creating his own exclusive surrogate family and resenting anyone coming near his prized friend. Reluctantly bringing his enamoured to the family’s palatial estate, Brideshead, Sebastian finds he cannot keep Charles wrapped in cotton wool as the young artist falls instantly in love with the home Sebastian reviles. More complex is Charles’ attraction to Julia, Sebastian’s sister. The Flyte family is headed by their piously Catholic matriarch who rules her roost with an iron crucifix, tersely depleting the joy from Sebastian and Julia’s lives. Noting Sebastian’s attachment to Charles, Lady Marchmain employs the young man as a keeper for her audacious son and insists he accompany her children on their visit to Venice for a holiday reunion with their scapegrace father. At the opposite end of the religious spectrum, Lord Marchmain fled the shackles of his wife’s heavenly devotions to live in happy sin with his loving, wise mistress: Her take on Catholicism is very different than the purgatory of guilt and restriction he left in England. Charles wraps himself in the Flytes’ dysfunction, desperately hoping to be one of them, but is always an outsider The beauty and romance of Venice gives free rein to Charles’s feelings for Julia and their encounter, thwarted by Julia’s guilt and remorse, has repercussions for all three young people as Sebastian sees his great love go up in flames and his trust in Charles shattered. Now useless to Lady Marchmain, she sets Charles straight about his chances with Julia, which, due to his self-proclaimed atheism and low birth, are exactly nil. Charles’ ignominious exit from the family’s graces seethes within him as time passes and he’s drawn back to the Flytes like a moth to a flame, heeding another call for help with Sebastian by Lady Marchmain. Even after years apart, Charles’ chance meeting with a now-married Julia compels him to throw over his own vows at the prospect of finally claiming the love of his youth and returning to Brideshead once again.

With its lush, cinematic canvases, emotion-filled pregnant silences and perceptive, scathing take on the wars between the classes, Brideshead Revisited could easily be mistaken for a lost Mechant-Ivory production. Julian Jerrold’s first two acts are wonderfully taut, fraught with abnegated desires and frustrations: Sebastian’s love for Charles is evident, Julia’s affections for Charles can come to nothing and Charles’s yearning for so many things, Julia, Brideshead, and yes, Sebastian, are all dead-ends, with most of the blame for their unhappiness falling on the shoulders of the rigid Lady Marchmain and her devout Catholicism. After the beauty and tension of the beginning of middle of the film, the last act becomes a strange Catholic bash with an ill-fitting band-aid of a resolution.  Jerrold’s odd ending to the story of the Flytes seems meant to appease those who noticed the 500-pound antitheist gorilla by weakly sublimating a clear anti-Papist stance into a vaguely pro-faith allegory. Unfortunately, the prior view was pursued with such unrelenting tunnel vision that the turnaround is unconvincing and lame.  Far more successful is Jerrold’s assertive contention of a shared homoerotic relationship between Sebastian and Charles that veers away from the film’s source. Merchant-Ivory-esque skinny dipping scene notwithstanding, there is more than enough here to firm up the argument that Sebastian’s love for Charles was not completely unrequited, giving a juicy heft to the triangle between Charles and the Flyte siblings.

Even more unfortunate for Jerrold is the loss of two powerhouse performances before the film’s end. Ben Whishaw as the lovesick, unhappy Sebastian is a revelation. Angry, haughty, sweet and broken, the pathetic manchild becomes a nervous wreck if he’s within a mile of his domineering mother. Drowning his misery in copious amounts of liquor, one can never predict if Sebastian will lacerate the nearest victim with the edge of his tongue or clutch his weather-beaten teddy bear, Aloysius and dissolve into a puddle of tears. Whishaw tempers the volatile rich kid with an aching tenderness and depth that restrains the character from more campiness than Sebastian willingly employs. And in this corner wearing a rosary, good jewels and an immaculate bun, is Lady Marchmain, formidably played by Emma Thompson. I’ll admit to a rising eyebrow at the idea of Mme. Thompson as the mother of three adult children (- and one still pubescent), but using a bare minimum of ageing makeup outside of the grey wig, Thompson summons all the weight, power and awe with which the Flyte matriarch is regarded. The absolute control she wields over her family is all the more fearsome for never having to raise her voice. Her weapons are cutting remarks, disdainful exhalations and enforced, purposeful blindness. Yet Lady Marchmain is no harridan; Thompson crafts a woman of misguided good intentions and a fierce love for her children, who simply makes the wrong choices. Thompson allows us to sympathise with this mother who, like so many, cannot fathom where the rift began between herself and her rebellious child. She is hurt and bewildered at the thought that Sebastian, whose proclivities are no secret to her, might actually hate her. As Charles Ryder, Matthew Goode gives a great performance as the beguiled social-climber in denial. Hayley Atwell is gorgeous and ripe-looking as Julia; her smouldering performance compliments Whishaw’s beautifully and the two Flyte siblings’ feral, interchangeable yin and yang balance makes the transference of Charles’s affections from one Flyte to the other perfectly understandable. The only problem for Goode and Atwell is getting cast in a film between two hurricanes, Ben and Emma, once they’re offscreen, you immediately want them back.

Would that the whole of Brideshead Revisited carried the narrative punch of its first ninety minutes. It’s a glorious looking affair with its postcard-quality sun drenched scenes of Venice, beautifully tailored linen suits, jewelry to slay for and atmospheric shots inside Castle Howard that make the gigantic manor simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic. The excellent musical orchestrations by Adrian Johnston captures the grandeur and romance of the piece and brings to mind the work of Max Steiner, composer of classic film scores like Gone with the Wind and Now, Voyager. So many of the right ingredients, but once the film’s two main engines are lost, it never regains its steam and the uneven last act eventually drags Brideshead Revisited down from what could’ve been a very lofty height. Still, I wouldn’t have missed this star making performance by Ben Whishaw or Emma Thompson’s magnificent turn for anything.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

July 24th, 2008

 

 

 

 

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