Saturday, February 7, 2009

Review: Brideshead Revisited

I took the picture you see here in May 2007 when my friend CC and I went to Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, England. This place is one of the most spectacular English country estates, and has been home to the Howard family for over 300 years. CC and I have an affinity for this place because the 9th Earl and Countess were George and Rosalind Howard, patrons and friends of the greater Pre-Raphaelite circle, including Simeon Solomon. On the day we visited Castle Howard, a crew was still in production working on segments for the film version of Brideshead Revisited, the movie released in 2008. We didn't get to see any of the actors though, and to make matters more challenging, some of rooms were closed to the public. That means, of course, we have to return for another visit one day.

I finally saw on DVD this film version of Brideshead Revisited. It's all right. Because it's based on an intricately written book from 1945 by the British writer Evelyn Waugh, and because of the huge success of the miniseries version released in the US in 1982 starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews (also filmed at Castle Howard), this new movie version was almost doomed to be a failure. The problem with adaptations such as this is that the viewer has to learn to appreciate it on its own merit, removing it contextually from other referents. So from this perspective, if you have never read the book or seen the miniseries (I've done both), you might actually love it. That's fine. But among the die-hard fans of the book or miniseries, you will find many to challenge your liking of the present film.

While retaining the 1920s and 1930s feel, they have modernized the language to appeal to a contemporary audience. The shift is on the triangulated relationship between the artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), the gay Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), and his sister Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell). The Flytes are the aristocrats of the film. Sebastian and Charles meet at Oxford University and Charles is quickly sucked into the Flyte family, much to the chagrin of Sebastian who was determined to keep him all to himself. Waugh's novel and the miniseries intimate at homosexuality between Charles and Sebastian, but this movie version makes no qualms about it, but as a result they also definitively show that Charles isn't gay and rejects Sebastian. I find this bothersome because the ambiguity was one of the strengths of the original story. Of course the affair he has with Julia becomes the real meat of this story. The book poignantly brings into the discussion how much Julia resembles her brother, and so it's easy to interpret the text as a nexus of indefinable sexuality. The book and miniseries make you realize that the love story is only one part of this layered tale that has to do with difference, religion being the most important one. Although this is addressed in the present film, it's so intent on focusing on the love story, the viewer misses out on understanding Waugh's true intent of describing this interwar period of British society where a man tried to find himself amidst old world society and new modern identity.

The cinematography is of course spectacular. Aside from Castle Howard, there are scenes in Oxford and Venice that are exquisite. Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Sebastian and Julia's mother, is brilliant and chilling. The scene where Charles sits at dinner with Lady Marchmain and her family is disturbingly uncomfortable to watch, because of Thompson's skill in conveying the subtly indomitable power she has over her children. So if you enjoy a good English manor-type classic, you should watch the movie. But if you want the true experience of Brideshead Revisited, read the book, then watch the original miniseries. You won't be disappointed. Here is the trailer for the film (or click here to see it on YouTube).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My favorite part was the bejeweled tortoises. Poor turtles....