Brideshead Revisited Revisited
BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (Julian Jarrold, Britain, 2008) — 6
After fearlessly predicting, I now must sheepishly retract: The new BRIDESHEAD REVISITED doesn’t suck pretty hard (thanks, Peter and Jeffrey both, for quoting that precise line). In fact, it doesn’t suck it all, though you do have to go in with low expectations and/or some boundaries set very firmly in your mind.
I went to see it Friday night with a couple of friends from Church. All three of us had low expectations (I would probably not have seen the film if I hadn’t been asked); and all three of us had more or less the same reaction — good or very good until it cops out in the coda; profiting from those low expectations; and not a complete travesty of the novel’s themes and Catholicism.
I wish I could have seen this movie innocent of the trailer and of the statements by the filmmakers, as noted in my previous post, of which I actually don’t take anything back. My expectations, though not borne out, WERE reasonable. The stridency of the score on the trailer, the emphasis given Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain (both the weight within the trailer, and the choice of what she says and does), and the plain words of the film-makers are what they were.
It’s as if the trailer-maker was given the specific task of finding everything a Catholic fan of the novel might object to, and putting that in, to tart up the film to look like an Edwardian version of THE DA VINCI CODE
Necessarily, a novel’s details and threads and subplots and minor characterizations — to which one can do justice in a not-so-hypothetical 13-part, 11-hour miniseries — have to be condensed or cut out entirely in a 135-minute movie (though I must admit this one does speeds by). The Oxford friend Anthony Blanche; the other two Flyte children; Rex Mottram and his dinner with Charles; Nanny Hawkins — all this is given the lick-and-a-promise treatment or passed over entirely. That much and the accompanying loss of richness, fabric and detail simply has to be accepted, or you have no business in the theater. And the recrafting and anti-religionizing of Hooper at the end (anti-Catholicism can simply be assumed of many Britons) is as awful as promised.
But within those limitations, the new BRIDESHEAD REVISITED isn’t bad at all — preserving Waugh’s basic plot architecture and structure. It doesn’t cop out with the death of Lord Marchmain, and though its effects on Charles are cut out, Julia’s face shows real relief. Lady Marchmain, thanks be to The Great Emma Thompson, is never caricatured and is portrayed more as overprotective than the evil tyrant of the trail and is frankly often right (Sebastian “gets drunk to escape his conscience” and she disowns Charles, not as arbitrarily as the trailer leads you to believe, but for sound reason — enabling an alcoholic). She is often spoken badly of, but that’s in the book too. And Aloysius the Teddy Bear makes several appearances.
Regardless of how Whishaw played Sebastian, there is very little gay passion in the film (I’d say none). The notorious “kiss on the mouth” is low-key friendly and half-drunk impulsive rather than passionate or sexual; and nothing comes of it, in either direction (sex or “panic”). And surely, if we’re gonna say Sebastian is “gay” in our sense, what does it mean that Sebastian is an effeminate, arrested-development, mother-dominated alcoholic who dies of a wasting disease and says the word “Mother” like Norman Bates in PSYCHO? This conception of Sebastian is rather limited — the novel’s Sebastian is charismatic and well-loved; this film turns him into a Wildean/Des Esseintes outsider (we even get a taunt about “sodomites” in the film’s first minutes). But it isn’t pushed too hard or into obviously anachronistic territories of gay consciousness.
Several things are given light, halfway, or a treatment I am wont to call “kinda take with one hand only to kinda give back with the other.”
- We see Sebastian at the monks’ sanitorium, apparently getting serious care, but little is made of this in terms of a (broadly-construed) vocation.
- The ending … well, it neither gives you Waugh’s ending nor completely undercuts it. Instead of Charles praying at the chapel, with ancient words newly learned, we see him enter the chapel, dip his fingers in holy water, walk up to a candle and contemplate crushing out the wick with his fingers, before walking away and leaving the candle lit. So Charles’s trajectory is from atheist (“strictly, C of E” got a big laugh from the three of us) to a kind of non-PZ-Myers tolerance, rather than Waugh’s trajectory — agnostic to Catholic.
- Two characters do say words to the effect of “the good thing about Catholicism is that you can do what you want, go to Confession, no problem.” This is obviously … not good … but what Catholic is not familiar with that attitude or hasn’t acted that way himself? And neither of the characters who say this is especially admirable and one is downright crass.
So if you walk in to the movie thinking the Church is an evil, phobic, patriarchal oppressor, this BRIDESHEAD REVISITED doesn’t disabuse you. But if you come in not thinking that, it doesn’t push that on you. And so, given how good it looks (the Venice scenes particularly), how well-played much of it is, and how so much of Waugh’s story does remain … I’d guardedly recommend it.
In short, this BRIDESHEAD is basically a Catholic movie made by post-Christians trying their durndest not to be post-Christians.