Julian Jarrold’s revamp of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel pares back the opulent trimmings of the television series to expose the bare bones of Waugh’s lament for the civilised past.
Charting blithe social-climber Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) on his journey from humble Paddington digs to the aristocratic arcadia, Andrew Davis and Jeremy Brock’s script focuses on his relationship with prim posho Julia (Haley Atwell), a halting love-affair set against the failing fortunes of the Marchmain family.
Introduced to the Marchmains through the non-platonic attentions of Sebastian (Ben Wishaw), Charles’ efforts to win Julia’s affections are cruelly dashed by the abortive attempts by Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) to use him to chaperone her wayward son. Dispensing with Ryder’s narration in favour of an oblique opening set during the WWII occupation of Brideshead, Jarrold immediately flashes forward to Charles’ shipboard meeting with Julia, establishing their relationship with a firmness that makes their (not-in-the-novel) kiss in Venice redundant. But having Charles reject Sebastian sexually in favour of Julia strips away the mystique of the sexual ambivalence which charges Waugh’s novel, fashioning Charles Ryder as a man somehow repressed by his own heterosexuality.
At breakneck speed, Jarrold attempts to cram in a huge cast of minor characters, but the results are sombre and unmoving, mainly because the leads lack class; Atwell is too mousey, Wishaw too weedily uncharismatic, and Thompson makes little of Lady Marchmain’s regal brittleness. But Matthew Goode excels as Charles, his cow-eyes brimming with emotion at the withering beauty he sees.
Literate, intelligent and lusciously upholstered, this Brideshead Revisited has enough unrequited passion, frocks, country house fountains and intimations of war to appeal to the Atonement crowd. But with Castle Howard – the sole retention from the Granada TV series – looming large in the background, the illustrious past constantly overshadows this present incarnation. The saving grace of this Brideshead is that its many failures only reinforce Waugh’s central point; things just ain’t what they used to be.
On general release from Oct 3.