A subtle, burning menace is hidden so beautifully in this new movie adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel, Brideshead Revisited, that you almost don’t see it. Beneath the lavish chandeliers, the Oxford degrees and the vast amount of wine glasses, lies an inevitable disaster that surrounds the main character, Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), as he becomes increasingly involved in the intoxicating world of privilege and religion.
Charles, a young man from middle-class roots, becomes entranced and consumed by the home, heritage and power of the Flyte’s; especially with the charming alcoholic, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), whom he meets during his first year in Oxford. A strong bond quickly forms between them both – at first through their love of getting drunk and later as a big-brotherly mentorship (although Sebastian has ulterior motives). As time progresses, Charles gets drawn further into the family when he is introduced to Sebastian’s sophisticated sister, Julia (Hayely Atwell). A love triangle soon forms between the three, as Charles falls deeply in love with Sebastian’s flirtatious sister, breaking Sebastian’s heart in the process. However Charles’ and Julia’s love is forbidden by Julia’s mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) due to religious differences — Julia being a strict Catholic and Charles an Atheist. The couple continues for a short time with their affair, finally realizing that it is never to be, but not before they drive Sebastian ever deeper into self-destructive behavior involving more drunken debauchery and Moroccan opium dens (this eventually leads to his total separation from his family).
It is during this complicated, yet enthralling period in Brideshead Revisited that defined the many obstacles Charles must overcome. The times weighed heavily with religious prejudices and emphasis on ones title and financial status – both of which work against his favor. Being involved in a three-person-relationship (one of which is homosexual) and being frowned upon by a skeptical mother didn’t help his cause. It all adds up to heartache and the overwhelming reality that Julia and Brideshead Castle, will always remain forever beyond his reach.
Set in the tense period in England before the Second World War, this superbly crafted, yet rather condensed feature (as compared to the 11-part British mini-series) will take you over completely from beginning to end by enveloping you with luxurious surroundings and unusually complicated characters. However, with Andrew Davies behind the curtain as head writer, it is hard to argue that this movie could not fall into the selective pile of pre-war time epics. Echoes of elements of The Painted Veil and Atonement are evident within certain scenes in Brideshead Revisited, although it does hold its own where style is concerned. The always reliable Emma Thompson proves her worth yet again as she makes the movie even more of a delight, as the prudent and strictly religious mother of Sebastian and Julia. Hayely Atwell is proving to have more variability with her roles as her career progresses; this is certainly her finest role to date.
This unforgettable story of loss of innocence and tragic love, in conjunction with haunting characterizations will remain with you for a long time, so long as you open up to director Julian Jarrold’s tremendous methods of storytelling. The sad epic journey of Brideshead Revisited is a must see.