Condensing Evelyn Waugh’s complex study of class, faith and the longing for grace was never going to be an easy task. In 1981, Grenada Television took a memorable 11 hours to cover Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, and it became the launching pad for a number of careers – including Jeremy Irons who played the middle class atheist Charles Ryder, seduced and lost in the upper class, catholic world of the Flyte family and their stately home Brideshead.
In this less than two hour version Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Kinky Boots) has to make some tough decisions about where to focus the story, and he heads for Catholicism generally rather than the tricky notion of grace – the sacred enabling power required for progress towards perfection. The film opens when Ryder (Mathew Goode) meets Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) at Oxford where both are studying, and the two young men form an intense friendship over a summer spent playing and drinking elegantly at the slightly decaying family home of Brideshead. Whilst there – and on a trip to Venice – Ryder also gets to know Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) and mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). He sees in all the family, and the house itself, something missing from his soul – something somehow more perfect, more sacred, and – as he falls for Sebastian and then Julia – is prepared to ignore their terrible failings as human beings in his “hunger” for some kind of personal salvation.
Whilst the imagery and sentiment of the Catholic Church is ever-present on screen, Jarrod and his cast never quite manage to pierce through this surface level to the deeper waters below. We never quite understand the spell that their faith – in particular the belief that we can only become better through God’s grace – has on them, and when each character makes a life changing decision because of this entrenched belief, it somehow rings hollow and melodramatic. Lost too is the profound irony that Charles – the atheist and most balanced character of the story – has a stronger desire for the perfect and the sacred than those flawed people he admires.
Ben Whishaw is compelling as the troubled Sebastian, destroyed by his mother’s touch and a class system that leaves him in need of nothing. Matthew Goode is a rather limp Charles, never quite able to express the inner driving force that must be there to make sense of the character, and likewise Hayley Atwell – cast as the daughter who never gets things right and who ultimately flees to the comfort of her childhood faith – fails to show these complex signs in her character’s development through the story.
As a result of this inability to fully bathe the story in the novel’s central theme, the film seems slow and beautiful, rather than intense, dramatic and insightful. The production design and music – often reminiscent of Grenada Television’s score – are superb.