Given that the original text has previously spawned a hugely acclaimed and much-loved 1981 mini-series, while the remainder of Evelyn Waugh’s equally masterful novels reside in relative obscurity, one cannot help but think it odd and unnecessary for director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane and Kinky Boots) to tackle Brideshead Revisited in the year 2008, seemingly apropos of nothing.
There exists a whole body of untouched work, clearly capable of penetrating the public consciousness, but instead, audiences must once again be treated to the familiar memories of Captain Charles Ryder who, stationed on the grounds of the Brideshead estate during the Second World War, vividly recalls his time spent there with the Flyte family.
Leaving his distant father behind in London, Charles (who looks exactly the same throughout the 15 years during which the film is takes place) sets off to pursue studies at Oxford University where he befriends Sebastian, a gay man, and his gang of “sodomites.” The pair mutually appreciate each other and bond over a shared interest in drinking expensive wines to excess.
Naturally, they become inseparable, and Charles is soon introduced to his friend’s family who reside on the titular country estate. Before long, our hero finds himself entangled in an incestuous, bisexual love triangle, while at loggerheads with the family’s devoutly Catholic matriarch. What was originally a complex treatise on memory, relationships and religion, is essentially played out as little more than a saucy romp, with all the subtle ambiguity of the Venga Boys.
In spite of the work’s key themes remaining as relevant as they ever were, one cannot help but suspect that this pedestrian retelling arose from little more than a whim to produce a camp period drama. The whole affair is so derivative and safe that viewers will find themselves longing for misplaced innovation or ill-judged reinvention that at least attempts to confound, rather than gently patronise.
If Jarrold really must rehash tried and tested source material, the least he could have done would be to set the film in space, replacing Sebastian’s tormented homosexual character with a hip, wise-cracking robot. But no, instead, we are presented with Brideshead Revisited- Revisited, a superficial, diluted replica of the earlier serial, void of its humour, brains, pacing and dignity.
Waugh’s great strength lay in crafting the quirkiest of characters in a manner that was both believable and human, many of whom survive this pointless exercise. Patrick Malahide, in particular, excels as Charles’ scene-stealing father. Still, bad casting plagues the film and the whole production is let down by Ben Whishaw’s turn as Sebastian (the equally wretched Jude Law was initially pencilled in for the role).
It’s evident from his participation in recent Brian Jones and Bob Dylan biopics that Mr Whishaw holds no reservations over slaughtering sacred cows, and once again, he fails to disappoint. Rather than present his character as a charismatic, foppish wildcard, Ben opts to portray him as the bastard lovechild of Kenneth Williams and Alan Carr, an embarrassing empathy black-hole, whose problems are surely outweighed by the audience members’ own. Characters need not be likeable to ‘work,’ however the film takes itself far too seriously to treat the poor souls that inhabit its sets with gleeful apathy.
Instead, it goes for broke, attempting as best it can to present grandiose spectacle and intimate soul-bearing both at once, falling short of either.
There must have been someone who watched the original serial and thought “this is quite good, but I wish it was a lot more heavy-handed, rushed and shot with less flair and imagination.” This film is for them.