Revisiting ‘Brideshead Revisited.’
By John Stiles.
When the so very odd Evelyn Waugh’s masterwork Brideshead Revisited last appeared on screen, the world was in the grip of a serious recession. The six-hour PBS version was a smashing success in 1981 in no small part because we were desperate for a little relief from a tattered reality. Nothing like a few long shots of a fabulous English country manor to take our minds off our paltry past-due mortgage. The 2008 big-screen version of Waugh’s conflicted story of class warfare, stifling religion, suffocating mothers, and lost love spends most of its flashback in and out of the magnificent Brideshead, ancestral home of the shattered family of Flyte.
Patriarch Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) has long ago fled the judgmental Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) for the canals of Venice; pathetic brother Bridley spends his days collecting matchbooks; sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) floats about the edges of the manor, a self-proclaimed “family shadow”; and brother Sebastian is in open revolt. Patterned after the androgynous Saint Sebastian (he’s the pretty one penetrated repeatedly by arrows depicted in nearly as many Renaissance oils as Madonna—the real Madonna, not the one that made everyone wait hours for her show last month), Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead is a Christian martyr of a different sort.
Into this mess of a family wanders the hopeful Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) enamored of Sebastian, Brideshead, and Julia, in that order. Part artist, part social climber, part love-struck young man, Charles guides us through the canals of Venice, the magnificent halls of Brideshead, and the lives of a decadent English aristocracy in a vain search for… security? spirituality? status? sex? love? The only hint of an answer comes when Charles dips his atheist fingers into the holy water of the Brideshead chapel so he won’t burn them when he reaches to snuff out the presence lamp (the candle that burns when consecrated bread or wine is present). Does he extinguish the light? Does he leave it burning? You’ll have to watch all two-plus hours of the new DVD release to know. Don’t skip to the last scene, it’s worth waiting (and watching) for.
Available Jan. 13 from Miramax Films Home Entertainment (miramax.com).
John W. Stiles (www.johnwstiles.com) writes regularly for OutSmart magazine.
Photo caption: Ben Whishaw (l), who plays Sebastian Flyte, and Matthew Goode, who plays Charles Ryder, are coached by director Julian Jarrold in a scene from Brideshead Revisited. Expanding on the PBS miniseries which aired in 1981, the 2008 feature film is based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 classic British novel about loss of innocence set in England prior to World War II.