“Brideshead Revisited,” the 1945 Evelyn Waugh opus that inspired the memorable 1981 miniseries, is now a feature film — a fine idea if only it had done something broader, bolder or deeper with Waugh’s story about class, freedom, duty, faith and the alluring nature of messed-up rich folk.
Instead, the film’s an unextraordinary bit of adapted Brit lit, watchable but wrongheaded as it turns character-rich, dramatically complexmaterial into simple romantic melodrama.
The movie somewhat resembles a Merchant Ivory presentation, sporting impressive production values that can’t quite mask an absence of depth. As suggested in the ads featuring three photogenic young people conveying something entwined, director Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots,” “Becoming Jane”) and screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock take liberties with Waugh’s material, refashioning it into a three-sided love story.
Middle-class aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) meets wealthy gay charmer Ben Whishaw) at Oxford in the 1920s, and Sebastian falls for Charles and brings him to his family’s unhumble abode, Brideshead.
Here, Charles meets Sebastian’s provocateurish sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell), and the siblings’ controlling, seriously Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). Awe-struck by his surroundings, Charles is seduced by Sebastian, but soon shifts his affections to Julia.
Julia loves Charles but is set to marry a callous Canadian (Jonathan Cake) chosen by her mother. The Charles-Julia romance causes conflict in Julia and shatters Sebastian, who down-spirals into alcoholism.
Like many British wartime dramas, this one has a brain, and its ambitiously presented castle scenes and lavish balls look big-screen grand. It’s also somewhat entertaining.
Hedonistic Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) proves particularly colorful.
But too often, the movie feels like a stuffy potboiler, failing to come vividly alive as either smart period literature or passionate romance. Echoing his previous films, Jarrold gives us potentially compelling characters but doesn’t sufficiently explore their heads.
Waugh’s blatant pro-Catholic element is hard to dramatize, and Waugh’s 1940s haziness on the nature of the Sebastian-Charles “romantic friendship” also doesn’t translate smoothly to current times. The decision to emphasize the Charles-Julia affair over the men’s relationship (a highlight of the miniseries) isn’t effective. The love-triangle component (not in Waugh’s version) further cheapens the drama.
Goode and Whishaw, if you can avoid comparing them with mini series counterparts Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, aren’t bad, but they don’t deliver the nuances, which are often how Brideshead and its denizens express themselves. Thompson gets it right.
Brideshead Revisited **½
Starring: Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson
Written by: Andrew Davies, Jeremy Brock
Directed by: Julian Jarrold
Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes