It may sound odd to say so, but among the many things that drive our affection for British literary costume drama (the plummy accents! The drawing rooms! Those hunky yet so civilized men!), one is surely a nostalgia for repression. Viewed from the vantage of messy, vulgar, let-it-all-hang-out America, the prospect of a society in which everything is kept in its stuffy place exerts a special allure. When the 11-hour British TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited aired on PBS in 1982, the very diffidence of the series was exquisite: Inch by inch, hour by hour, it dangled luxury and desire in front of its hero, Jeremy Irons’ Charles Ryder, only to keep reminding him of their heavy spiritual price.
The new movie version of Brideshead Revisited stays relatively true to Waugh’s plot, and Julian Jarrold has directed it lavishly, but the main difference is that the film’s emotions keep sloshing around on the surface. Sebastian Flyte, the troubled, indulgent rich kid who still carries a teddy bear, and whose guilt about his homosexual leanings turns him into a drunk, is now a flamboyant, hair-tossing delinquent played by Ben Whishaw with a pout so petulant he makes Jonathan Rhys Meyers look like a smiley-face button. Charles, the middle-class, mildly reptilian painter played by Irons with such close-to-the-vest anguish, has become, in the person of Matthew Goode, a sprightly good fellow, charmingly at ease in his skin. Even Charles’ atheism, so pivotal to the plot, now seems less a rigid stance on his part than a benign philosophical shrug. Charles falls for Julia (Hayley Atwell), Sebastian’s sister, and that’s a big problem, since Sebastian gets jealous easily, and he comes from a clan of passionate Catholics (even the lapsed ones).
The one performer who seems at home with the gravity of it all is Emma Thompson, who portrays the family matriarch, Lady Marchmain, as a woman so defined by faith that she’s a beatific monster. The only life that matters to her is the afterlife, and Thompson, rolling her vowels like marbles, finds a radiance in that view, even as Lady Marchmain squashes her children’s happiness in this life. Brideshead Revisited is opulent and watchable, yet except for Thompson’s acting, it’s missing something — a grander, more ambivalent vision of the England it depicts dying out. In the series, we looked at that palatial fortress of Brideshead manor and thought: Here, in one house, is a fading empire. In the movie, it’s just sublime real estate. B