As a young man, Evelyn Waugh was anything but pious: his early years were marked by attempted suicide, affairs with both men and women, a bitter divorce, and heavy drinking. In 1924, at age 20, he even collaborated with some friends at Oxford University to produce an amateur film—The Scarlet Woman: An Ecclesiastical Melodrama—that mocked religion in general and Catholicism in particular, with Waugh as a gay Oxford don trying to seduce the Prince of Wales. (The silent short also featured Elsa Lanchester, in her first film role.)
But by 1945, when Waugh, now recognized as a major writer, published Brideshead Revisited, Catholicism had become a major force in his life, and some reviewers dismissed the book as religious propaganda. The novel’s sentimental love story—about a couple who end their adulterous romance for moral reasons—and glamorous depiction of upper-class Brits during the Jazz Age made it a transatlantic best seller, and Waugh was approached by MGM about an American movie version. He ultimately nixed the deal because the Hollywood execs wanted to minimize the book’s theological elements.
Brideshead later became a landmark British miniseries—gorgeously shot, brilliantly acted, and, at 659 minutes, meticulously faithful to its source. It aired in the U.S. in 1982 and was released on DVD a couple years ago. But it’s taken more than 60 years to bring Waugh’s best-known novel to the big screen. Director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots, Becoming Jane) and screenwriters Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland) and Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones’s Diary) have compressed the action and put their own spin on the material, prompting some outrage online among fans of the novel and miniseries. Their 133-minute feature isn’t entirely faithful to the book’s details and expresses more ambivalence about religion than Waugh might have wished, but it captures the theme of moral responsibility in an evenhanded way that should speak to believers and nonbelievers alike.
Like the novel, the film begins during World War II, when British army officer Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) discovers he’s been stationed at Brideshead, the once-grand estate he frequented in his youth. A flashback transports us to the 1920s, when 19-year-old Charles is shipped off to Oxford by his widowed father (Patrick Malahide). At school he’s befriended by the eccentric and effeminate Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw)—”magically beautiful,” in Waugh’s famous description, “with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.” The young men meet cute one night when a drunken Sebastian leans in the window of Charles’s ground-floor room to vomit. They become intimate companions who spend their time alone together picnicking and boating, and the wine flows freely.
Soon Charles accompanies Sebastian to Brideshead, the majestic family seat, and meets the rest of his family, including his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), who so resembles her brother that they could be twins. Sebastian and Julia are rebels—he’s a “sodomite” who listens to jazz records, she bobs her hair and smokes cigarettes—but they’re also committed Catholics, indoctrinated since childhood by their devout, gracious, but domineering mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). The siblings playfully call themselves “heathens” and “sinners,” but underneath their mischievous patter lie deep wells of familial and religious guilt that Charles—an only child, a lapsed Anglican, and a self-proclaimed atheist—can barely fathom.
The relationship between Charles and the Flyte children intensifies when they travel to sensuous Venice to visit Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), who’s abandoned his family to live with his Italian mistress (Greta Scacchi). During a nocturnal outing, Charles tries to seduce Julia, which Sebastian regards as a betrayal. This is the movie’s most significant departure from Waugh: in the book Charles and Sebastian visit Italy alone, and Charles’s romance with Julia doesn’t flower till later, after Sebastian’s binge drinking has deepened into full-blown alcoholism. Yet by emphasizing the emotional triangle over other aspects of the novel, the film captures an essential element of the story: to Charles, who’s still idealistic, self-absorbed, and emotionally immature, Sebastian and Julia are different aspects of the same illusion, of Brideshead as the epitome of wealth, class, and family.
A palatial country house surrounded by a beautifully landscaped park, Brideshead is part mansion, part museum, and part mausoleum. (The scenes were filmed at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, also a location for the 80s miniseries, and its sprawling lawns, lush gardens, and imposing towers are augmented by seemingly endless galleries of medieval and neoclassical art—Christian imagery at its most serene, with the Madonna and child, and horrific, with Christ on the cross.) The very name Brideshead connotes innocence and purity. Charles falls in love with Brideshead and the Flytes because of the traditions they represent, whereas Sebastian and Julia, ironically, love Charles because he’s unencumbered by those same traditions, which they find oppressive. As the family’s dysfunction and the limits of Charles’s ability to love become apparent, the emotional triangle becomes more fragmented and, by Catholic standards, immoral. Sebastian drifts off to North Africa and eventually lands in a hospital where, dying of alcoholism, he helps tend to his fellow patients. Julia and Charles, though both married, become lovers, but after her parents’ deaths she feels increasingly guilty about “living in sin.” And as Charles becomes more disillusioned with his worldly relationships, his openness to spirituality grows incrementally.
The movie neither proselytizes for religion nor bashes it; instead it suggests that faith and the family have the potential to enrich lives or to destroy them. Lady Marchmain’s efforts to save her gay son through prayer instead drive him to drunken dissipation, and the Catholic marriage she arranges for Julia winds up pushing her daughter into adultery. Lady Marchmain’s actions may be monstrous, but her realization that she’s wounded and alienated her children also makes her a tragic, sympathetic figure. And in their suffering Julia and Sebastian do achieve spiritual nobility—what a religious believer might call a state of grace. (It’s no accident that they’re named for martyred saints, while Charles bears the name of the 17th-century English king whose marriage to a Catholic enraged the nation’s Protestant power base and helped bring about his downfall.)
By focusing on Charles, Sebastian, and Julia, the film gives short shrift to some of the story’s crucial historical context. Waugh was writing about his own generation—people born in the first decade of a new century who keenly appreciated the legacy of Victoria’s empire but foresaw its imminent decay. (And what a generation it was: Waugh’s literary contemporaries included Christopher Isherwood, Graham Greene, George Orwell, T.H. White, Nancy Mitford, Mary Renault, Anthony Powell, and W.H. Auden.) Jarrold fails to capture the excitement of 1920s Oxford, a hotbed of intellectual and artistic exploration, and the screenplay reduces many of the novel’s fascinating secondary characters to cameo roles, including Sebastian and Julia’s younger sister, Cordelia (Felicity Jones); Charles’s wife, Celia (Anna Madeley); and Anthony Blanche (Joseph Beattie), an openly gay dandy that Waugh modeled on Oxford aesthetes Harold Acton and Brian Howard.
On the other hand, Jarrold does offer an intriguing take on an enduring literary mystery: the extent to which Charles and Sebastian’s “romantic friendship” is sexual. Waugh modeled Sebastian on one of his own Oxford boyfriends, but once he converted to Catholicism he came to regard his gay inclinations as temptation to be resisted, and the novel is coy on the subject. Jarrold suggests that Sebastian is in love with Charles, but Charles—sexually ambivalent and emotionally withholding—is unable to return his friend’s passion. In one scene invented by Brock and Davies, the pair get drunk together and Sebastian shyly kisses Charles on the lips; Charles drowsily accepts the kiss but doesn’t reciprocate. The added scene suggests that Sebastian drinks to sublimate his unfulfilled longing for Charles as well as to escape the guilt his mother’s Catholic teachings have instilled in him.
The film is more ambiguous in depicting Charles’s embrace of Catholicism. Is it the work of divine guidance—the “twitch upon the thread,” as Catholic novelist G.K. Chesterton put it, that brings the prodigal back to God? Or is it a cop-out, a way for Charles to absolve himself of his failings and the pain he’s caused to the people he loves? Even the lustrous final shot is open to interpretation: as Charles returns from his memories of the 1920s to the grim realities of World War II, he walks into a light that might be described as heavenly if not for the shadows of marching men—soldiers on parade, preparing for the hell of battle. Refusing to preach for or against faith, the movie is a sometimes elegiac but mostly somber study of universal themes: trust and betrayal, love and loss, hope and disillusionment, the aspirations and failings of human relationships.v
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