Those who have not seen the 1981 Granada television miniseries about the aristocratic English Catholic Marchmain family, their spiritual torments, and their conflicted friend, Charles Ryder, may be at an advantage in watching this new adaptation. That series was superb and took the time to do more than justice to the satirical Evelyn Waugh's uncharacteristically solemn and lengthy 1945 novel. This film version, much briefer than the miniseries but not exactly short at 135 minutes, has one advantage: it shows off the plot in sharp outline. The miniseries may actually blur that basic element. It was hypnotic, rolling on from week to week for those who first saw it gathering an accumulation of nostalgia and melancholy, beautifully mounted and graced by the likes of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, and Stéphane Audran. It also put Jeremy Irons on the map in the central role of Charles, and by his own admission made him "fall out of love with jeans" through wearing the elegant clothes of a well-turned-out young man of the 1920's. The miniseries can take the time to develop important minor characters. The book is an elaborate portrait of a generation and an era. Waugh wrote short witty novels mostly. But this time, writing about wealth and grandeur and Catholicism, he waxes poetic and goes into near-Proustian detail. Sebastian's grand family draws the awestruck middle-class Charles in and eventually spits him out, leaving him shattered, but lastingly impressed by the power of the Marchmains' Catholic faith. As the tale opens (in all versions), he's reminiscing about it all much later as an army officer at the end of World War II ironically posted at Brideshead, the glorious estate where Sebastian grew up--a place Charles came to know intimately even though it was never fully accessible to him. Maybe Waugh in his novel was more concerned with the nostalgia for a prewar life he imagined as splendid and carefree, for a class to which he aspired, and more self-consciously dwelling on his infatuation with Catholicism, to which he was a convert. But the story, as we see in this new film, turns on a kind of love triangle--one heavy-laden with sexual and spiritual conflict. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) and Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) enter into an intense romantic and alcoholic friendship when Charles comes for his first year at Oxford. The film carries this a bit further than either the novel or the TV version, showing the two handsome young men not only often affectionately and playfully arm in arm but in an intimate bathroom scene and once, anyway, sharing a lingering drunken kiss. This despite the fact that a relative sternly warned Charles to avoid "sodomites" when he first arrived at university. Whishaw (of 'Perfume' and 'I'm Not There') has a touching, wispy, vulnerable quality that distinguishes him from the TV Anthony Andrews, whose Sebastian is more brassy, slick, confident and social. When Charles meets Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwall in the film; the impossibly elegant Diana Quick in the miniseries), and lights a cigarette for her in a car, he immediately hears, in the words of the novel, echoed in the TV narration, "a thin bat's squeak of sexuality," and the equation changes. He begins to desire Julia. Apart from her unmistakable allure she's a way for Charles to possess the Marchmain world more completely. This, especially in the film, immediately clouds the relationship with Sebastian, who grows cold, and simultaneously sinks deeper into dipsomania. In the miniseries there is more time for Charles's profound infatuation with his aristocratic young Catholic friend and his magnificent world to sink in and for Sebastian's decline into alcoholism to unwind with slow, horrible inevitability. The latter is memorably described in the book (repeated in the TV narration) as feeling like "a blow, expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull and sickening pain and the doubt whether another one like it could be borne." It has to be rushed a bit in the film. But the process isn't falsified, only made more clear. Their mother, Lady Marchmain (film, Emma Thompson; TV, Claire Bloom) at first finds Charles sensible and polite, a good influence for the dissolute and sexually wayward Sebastian. But she can't bend Charles to her will. It emerges that Lord Marchmain (film, Michael Gambon; TV, Laurence Olivier) has long ago fled from his wife's control to Venice and lives with a mistress, Cara (film, Greta Schacchi; TV, Stéphane Audran). A visit to Venice leads to kisses with Julia and also introduces Charles to another equally intoxicating kind of beauty--besides which in Italy, everybody's Catholic, but as Cara points out, of a more relaxed sort than the cloying Lady Marchmain's. Charles can't have Julia as long as Lady Marchmain is around. As circumstances turn out, their idyll is brief, and happens after Charles is married and a successful painter. Sebastian has wound up with a weak German man in Morocco, in terrible health, a saintly drunkard. Julia and Lord Marchmain have last minute returns to their faith and Charles is left out in the cold. Viewing all three versions, book, TV, screen, one sees the story isn't about Charles or about anybody really. It's about temptation. It's about the world between the wars, through eyes clouded by longing. The adaptation is very creditable. It shows the appeal of the story. Those who are entranced by it ought to read Waugh's book and rent DVD's of the Granada miniseries--which was about the best thing ever done for television. It delivers long passages from the book verbatim. Waugh was best in his short witty early satires but he turns many a good phrase in this, his most popular (and for a while his own favorite) book. Then he rejected it, and one can see why. Its sentimentality is so unlike him at his best. But it adapts well.
Drama / Romance
Drama / Romance
A poignant story of forbidden love and the loss of innocence set in England prior to World War II.
August 26, 2020