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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Brideshead Revisited

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Jacqueline Monahan

Brideshead Revisited

Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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The 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh makes it to the big screen in style with this two-hour compression (1981’s 11-part miniseries starred Jeremy Irons) of a decade-long love story, seemingly doomed and forbidden by religious oppression and intolerance.

Although it may have been scandalous in its time, Brideshead Revisited is now a rather tame tale of bisexual sibling rivalry over one man’s love and the repressed, duty-filled lives of one of England’s aristocratic Catholic families. Accordingly, you’ll encounter all the accoutrements that come with almost obscene British wealth in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Period costumes, vast, scenic country landscapes, and Brideshead itself, a palatial estate filled with religious artifacts, priceless art, and even its own chapel will command attention and interest during the first half of the film and then ever so slowly diminish into a seemingly never ending quest for personal happiness.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a promising artist beginning Oxford studies in History. His father Edward (Patrick Malahide) is a widower and emotionally distant to the point of speaking in a type of sugar-coated venom to his son. At Oxford, Charles’ cousin Jasper (Richard Teverson) warns him about a group of classmates he calls "sodomites." One of these, Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) introduces himself by drunkenly vomiting through the window of Charles’ first-floor apartment. He later apologizes with flowers and an invitation to lunch.

Charles promptly falls in with Sebastian and his flamboyant group who decadently rule the campus with social activities, creating excitement wherever they can. Sebastian is smitten with his new best friend, even going so far as to kiss him. Charles allows him to, but does not seem to participate. Ambivalence, you know.

When he visits Sebastian’s home, Brideshead, a monstrously large and lush country estate, Charles is entranced by its opulence and intrigued even more by the formidable Lady Marchmain, (Emma Thompson) who walks with a ramrod righteousness and maintains a pious conviction that her life belongs to the will of God. Her children’s lives, including Sebastian’s, belong to her.

Charles meets and promptly falls in love with Julia Flyte (Hayley Attwell), Sebastian's sarcastic sister. Lady Marchmain has made it clear that their respectable Catholic family could never tolerate Julia's relationship with an atheist. Did I forget to mention that Charles is an atheist? Charles is an atheist. Meanwhile, Sebastian is in love with Charles himself. The trio decides to go on a trip together to escape the confines of Brideshead and Mother.

Charles, Sebastian and Julia visit the estranged Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) and his mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi) in Venice. The love triangle is tested with a witnessed kiss between Charles and Julia, Sebastian retreating into heartbreak, and Charles’ premature return to Oxford.

Now there are hurt feelings, betrayal, confusion and guilt to wade through. Julia gets engaged to someone totally wrong for her emotionally, but who is, most importantly, Catholic. Lady Marchmain banishes Charles from Brideshead. In his devastation, Sebastian defects to Morocco, living out his days in a drug-induced stupor.

Fast forward ten years to a ship making a trans-Atlantic crossing on which the now-famous artist Charles Ryder hosts a show of his jungle-themed work. Across the room he spies Julia and follows her (finally) to consumation in a private stateroom. Will the lovers finally get to be together, despite the fact that they’re each married to someone else? Charles is still an atheist, Julia is still a Catholic, and Sebastian has never returned home, but Lord Marchmain surprisingly does and is gravely ill. Lady Marchmain has already gone to her heavenly home without ever laying eyes on Sebastian again.

The last third of the film wrestles with these issues in an uninspired and anticlimactic fashion with lovely scenery thrown in almost as the single point of interest. Low on drama, high on pomp and privilege, Brideshead Revisited in its shortest form is still too long to sit through for the paltry payoff. Come to think of it, there is none.

Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) has created a beautiful period saga that starts out promisingly enough but ends with a proverbial whimper of indifference.

Screenwriters Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones's Diary) and Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland), create noteworthy dialogue for Sebastian, Lady Marchmain and even Charles’ stealth-viper father, Edward.

Matthew Goode's somber Charles walks through the events in his life as if only a witness to them. Like one of his own blank canvases, there’s no self-determination at all. Hayley Atwell’s Julia is by turns, a temptress and a religious purist when the mood strikes. Ben Whishaw is a type of scenery all by himself; his gaunt Sebastian, aptly named after a martyr, is flamboyant and wounded in equal parts. Emma Thompson’s Lady Marchmain steals each scene she is in with a consistently rigid grace accentuated by a personal mission to save her children’s souls even if they hate her for it.

Despite the scenery, religious pretensions, societal taboos, and vintage gowns, I find myself getting ready to decline a second invitation to tea. One visit to Brideshead is quite enough, thank you.