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Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

Can the new version of Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece hold a candle to the 1981 television miniseries?

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Arcadian youth: Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw, left) and Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) in Brideshead Revisited - PHOTO BY NICOLA DOVE/ MIRAMAX FILMS

What if they remade Gone with the Wind? Remade it, that is, as a normal-length movie in line with the tastes and production standards of 2008. No doubt the result would not be the monument, the blockbuster or the enduring popular favorite that David O. Selznick's 1939 original was. But viewers' feelings about it would likely depend most on whether they were familiar with the earlier film or just discovering Margaret Mitchell's epic story for the first time.

A similar situation faces those going into Julian Jarrold's Brideshead Revisited, which has its own illustrious predecessor. While nowhere near GWTW in the realm of cultural landmarks, the 1981 British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel remains a milestone in its own medium.

Though generally allergic to most Masterpiece Theater-type entertainments, I was among those caught up in the rage for the show when it was originally broadcast on PBS' Great Performances. It was one of those rare occasions when it seemed everyone I knew was watching the same series and avidly discussing every episode after it aired.

It may well have been the last television miniseries, apart from the first season of Twin Peaks, that I watched all the way through. And when I rewatched the whole thing a few years ago, its charms and accomplishments had not dimmed in the least.

But let me now jump to the critical bottom line. Viewers enraptured by the TV series will not, I think, be outraged by this new movie version. Surely it is smaller and less intoxicating than the video incarnation in almost every way, but it is no botch or insult. Newcomers to Waugh's expansive yarn, meanwhile, will find plenty of fascinations in Jarrold's plush and tasteful big-screen version—enough, perhaps, to prompt them to seek out the earlier and superior dramatization.

Comparing the two versions inevitably poses the question of which medium is better for adapting a rich, capacious novel: Long-form television or a feature film? Brideshead is a case that argues strongly for the former. The series, at 11 hours, allowed viewers to experience the novel's many relationships and milieus in their full complexities. The 135-minute movie, on the other hand, has the virtue of concision, a tighter focus on thematic and dramatic essentials.

That focus, though, accounts for an aspect of the film that may sound most disappointing or objectionable to some fans of the series: the decision to downplay the homosexual romantic angle in favor of the heterosexual.

When the series first aired, it contained perhaps the most lavish gay romance seen on American TV till that time. And "romance" was definitely the operative word; the fact that the whole issue of sex between the male leads was strategically elided (as it was in Waugh's novel) surely helped make the show more palatable to a wide audience.

Furthermore, that romance was hardly incidental or peripheral to the story. It was the cornerstone of a comprehensive, intensely romantic vision uniting themes of time, family, class, history and, most importantly, religion.

Although recalled from the chilly desolation of World War II and adulthood, the story's heart is a recollection of golden, giddy youth in the 1920s. Charles Ryder (played by Matthew Goode in the film), an aspiring painter, leaves his drab middle-class home in London and goes up to Oxford to study history. Almost immediately, he falls in with a crowd of catty, irreverent dandies whose eccentric orbits revolve around Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a fey young aristocrat who takes an instant liking to Charles.

In the TV series' delightful early episodes, what was most gay—and most startling—wasn't the growing bond between Charles and Sebastian but the gaggle of malicious wits and outré provocateurs surrounding them. Especially striking was the epicene, ornately stuttering Anthony Blanche, a veritable fount of scandalous gossip and gleeful character assassination.

Fans of the show may be chagrined to learn that the movie dispenses with Charles' Oxonian initiation and the lavender mob he encounters, in a few brief scenes, and that Blanche (Joseph Beattie)—like other important secondary characters—is reduced to a mere walk-on. Yet all this has an undeniable logic. Screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock obviously decided the relationship between Charles and Sebastian's family was the story's filmable core, and everything not directly related to that had to go.

So, instead of lingering among collegiate bon vivants and long evenings of drunken disputation and flirtation, the film hurries us on to the stunning country estate Brideshead (played in both versions by Yorkshire's Castle Howard), where we meet Sebastian's controlling, intensely Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) and his comely yet distant sister Julia (Hayley Atwell).

During a luxuriant summer spent among Brideshead's bowers, the mounting glow between Charles and Sebastian is conveyed via nude swims in the fountain and a single, drunken, dreamy-eyed kiss. Thereafter, the film takes its greatest liberty with Waugh's text: When the two young men go off to Venice to see Sebastian's crusty, disaffected father Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), Julia is made to accompany them, and a late-night kiss between her and Charles precipitates Sebastian's spiral out of love and into the self-destructive alcoholism that will characterize the rest of his life.

Though this narrative rearrangement may be a bit too convenient and simplistic, the film follows the book's implication in suggesting that while Charles' homo leanings are a "phase" common to well-schooled young Englishmen, Sebastian is genuinely gay and, thanks to the guilt foisted on him by his mother, tormented. The boys' infatuation thus has a limited shelf life.

Yet shifting the emphasis to the relationship between Charles and Julia that emerges in the following decade, when both are married and he is a successful painter, turns out to be problematic. While it gives the film a more conventionally shaped screen narrative—as well as honoring the Freudian assumption that heterosexual coupling is more "mature"—it also jars against the tale's burgeoning religious theme and deflects us from an incipient realization: For a whole panoply of personal and cultural reasons, Charles is not in love with any individual so much as he is with the entire family and indeed with Brideshead and everything it represents.

For people who've never seen the TV show, little of this is likely to matter, except perhaps as a vague awareness that the movie's too much like a typical British costumer. For fans of the show, what's likely to matter most are the differences in the two versions' casting, which are generally to the disadvantage of the film. Though movies are assumed to be able to attract better performers than TV series, that's not the case with Brideshead.

The greatest loss comes in the role of Sebastian, which in the TV version was brilliantly essayed by Anthony Andrews as a human champagne bottle, full of insouciant effervescence and mercurial, brooding charm. Whishaw's Sebastian, by contrast, is merely dour and pouty.

In drastically whittling down the story's two great comic characters, Blanche and Charles' drolly acerbic father, the filmmakers miss the chance for the original's delightful performances by, respectively, Nicholas Grace and John Gielgud. (Patrick Malahide is the film's Charles pere.) And while Thompson and Gambon are terrific actors, their incarnations of the Marchmains simply can't touch the ones provided earlier by Claire Bloom and Laurence Olivier.

In what are designated its two lead roles, however, the film is more fortunate. Taking on the part that launched Jeremy Irons' career, Goode (previously seen in Woody Allen's Match Point) proves a solid, believable Charles, with a hint of his predecessor's vocal intonations. And he has a fine match in Atwell, whose performance gets at Julia's volatile mix of conformity and rebellion, piety and license.

In one sense, the film's choice of dramatic emphasis improves on the TV show's narrative, which turned out to be unfortunately entropic: As compelling and light-handed as the earlier episodes were, the later ones grew increasingly heavy and ponderous.

That quality might be seen as reflecting a life's inevitable trajectory, from the joys of youth to the disillusion of middle age. Yet it also reflects a fascinating contradiction between what Waugh evidently intended and what he achieved.

In his comments about Brideshead, the author claimed his work was heavily imbued with theological themes, even if they often weren't obvious. Yet a Christian allegory drawn from such material (think of The Divine Comedy) would start in the darkness of sin and disbelief and end, triumphantly, in the light of resurrection and faith.

Waugh may have thought his story provided a climactic testament to the Catholicism he embraced after a profligate youth, but the story's emotional currents really run in the opposite direction, beckoning us ever back toward the incandescence of first love, freedom and "pagan" folly. As indicated by the title of its first book, "Et in Arcadia Ego," Brideshead is not a Christian myth but the classical world's myth of the lost Golden Age, retold in flapper-era garb.

In meeting Sebastian, Charles recalled that he found a "low door in the wall ... that opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden." Like Proust's retrospective reveries, like The Great Gatsby's boats beating back against the current, Brideshead wants to reverse time's flow and carry us back, always and forever, to that lost garden. The appeal of the offer is so strong that it animates even lesser works derived from Waugh's book.

Brideshead Revisited opens Friday in select theaters.

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