Brideshead Revisited

whishawWith bubbly and a teddy: Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (Photo courtesy of Miramax)

I endured the new Brideshead Revisited under barbaric conditions—in an un-air-conditioned screening room that reeked of sulfur and cat piss. One stifling hour later, the air-conditioning (a necessity for a July afternoon) finally kicked in; the scent of sulfur never entirely subsided, which may explain why the rest of press corps huddled in the back of the house. Not to be dissuaded from my customary spot in the third or fourth row, I soldiered on.

Being taken with the director Julian Jarrold’s previous film, the underrated Becoming Jane, I’d looked forward to this. Becoming Jane, I thought, nicely captured certain realities of English life (in the marital squabbles between Julie Walters and James Cromwell, for one) and in the eternal struggle, or tension, between those who have a creative impulse versus those who don’t, the best and most emblematic example of this being the moment the young Jane Austen turns her attention away from a wealthy suitor to scribble a few lines on a scrap of paper. “What’s she doing?” bellowed an imperious matron, played by Maggie Smith. “She’s writing,” offered the suitor. Smith: “Can anything be done about it?”

No such humor appears in Brideshead Revisited, a compendium of crass reductions masquerading as an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel. The screenplay was begun by Andrew Davies and finished—or rather, finished off—by Jeremy Brock, the perpetrator of one of 2006’s very worst films, the abomination Driving Lessons. Bizarre continuity problems—though they are the least of this movie’s troubles—abound. For example, the friendship between Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) begins when Sebastian upchucks through the open window of Ryder’s Oxford flat. From the color of the sky behind Sebastian, one surmises that the hour is still early evening; yet in a matter of housekeeping even a college freshman would be hard put to explain, the movie has Ryder toweling up the goop the next morning, apparently so that he’ll have something to do when a messenger arrives bearing a scroll with Sebastian’s apologies and invitation to lunch that day. Later, when Sebastian takes Ryder to the family manse, Brideshead, for the first time, they steal away, past all the fine sculptures and paintings, to visit an old lady in a secluded room. As they part, the woman (a grandmother? a great-aunt?) admonishes Ryder to take care of Sebastian, then is never seen or alluded to again. The production notes identify her as a nanny, but even so, wouldn’t her presence in the house be remarked upon by one of the family at some point?

More gratingly, the screenwriters (to say nothing of the director) ultimately forget Sebastian, too. During the long section near the end, when the alcoholic winds up in Marrakech for an ongoing convalescence, the filmmakers scuttle not only his final days, but his death as well. The moviemakers, though they want the homosexual Sebastian to be more “out,” have idiotically emphasized Ryder’s love for his friend’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) at the expense of Sebastian’s love for Ryder. Indeed, there’s something faintly homophobic about the way Sebastian is shucked off. First of all, there’s Whishaw’s dire misconception of the role—overplaying him as a foppish, queenie stereotype: a flittering, twittering, exaggerated camp dandy who oozes with self-conscious preciosity. “It’s just heav’n with strawb-ryz,” comes his solicitation to picnic in the countryside. Unlike in the novel or the miniseries, this Sebastian gets to kiss Ryder, a nice on-the-mouth smooch after a pleasant midday debauch with many an empty wine bottle scattered about. The filmmakers put themselves in a bind with the kiss: neither they nor the men can go any further without totally re-writing Waugh or without ignoring that homosexuality was outlawed in England at the time. And yet for Ryder to receive this kiss blankly staring off into space, neither accepting nor rejecting, isn’t a plausible course. A sane person, however inebriated, wouldn’t sit there blithely having no reaction at all.

Let me quote something from the Miramax press notes: “Charles’ friendship with Sebastian is not explicitly homosexual in the novel, though it becomes clear by the end that Sebastian has found happiness in a homosexual relationship, when he ends up living with Kurt, the German soldier he meets in Morocco. The film makes Sebastian’s sexual attraction for Charles more explicit, while maintaining some ambiguity as to how Charles deals with being the object of such desire.”

Well, no kidding about the ambiguity (although it’s actually the scenarists’ self-imposed dodge), but, more importantly, where’s Kurt? Absolutely nothing “becomes clear” in the film re this development; Sebastian’s final scene, his reunion with Ryder, is one of abject misery. (The moviemakers camouflage their condescending view of Sebastian’s queer dilemma in all sorts of nifty ways: as Ryder perches at the edge of a tub while Sebastian bathes, a jazz violin on a wind-up Victrola in the next room scores their bitter pas de deux to a jaunty blues tune, “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man.”)

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Miramax also tells us this: “The difficult and passionate affair between Charles and Julia only features in the second half of the book… The film has placed their affair as part of its framing devices, thereby allowing the audience to see the past through the prism of Charles’ love for Julia. By placing Julia in Venice with Charles and Sebastian—a major change from the novel but one which was approved by the Waugh estate—the filmmakers were able to bring her center-stage in the film’s narrative, as well as to dramatize more powerfully and economically the evolution of Charles [sic] affections from Sebastian to Julia. The Waugh estate were [sic], in fact, happy to see this relationship developed in the film.”

Were they? Even leaving aside the issue of the youthful Waugh’s forsaking of same-sex love affairs in favor of hetero married life as a conservative Catholic (who was destined to feel gravely disappointed by the “liberal” reforms of Vatican II), the decision to have Julia accompany the men to Venice must rank as the movie’s most nonsensical move, because once the filmmakers get her there, they trot out an ancient stock device—Sebastian, to his devastation, spies Charles and Julia making out in a canal by moonlight—and on this cliché, they pivot the remainder of Waugh’s motivations.

Long before this, however, Brideshead Revisited, version .08, announces itself as pure counterfeit. In an early scene between Ryder and his widowed father, a disagreeable old crank played by Patrick Malahide, Malahide all too obviously parrots John Gielgud’s vocal mannerisms. Listen to how Malahide snobbishly thunders, “Most entertaining!” and you cannot help but hear Gielgud’s rhythm and irony, but Malahide’s theft amounts to embarrassment, not homage.

The Oxford sequences fare no better: the actors playing college students speak with clipped diction well beyond the point of self-parody. And it’s dispiriting. The ineptitude of this Brideshead Revisited shows us that not even the British can make a British movie anymore. As Julia, Hayley Atwell, who made a favorable impression in Woody Allen’s shockingly good Cassandra’s Dream, has been given an unflattering variant on a pageboy hairdo, with severe straight bangs beading her forehead and a rounded bob about her cheekbones. It’s a truly hideous hairstyle, and in one scene, at her engagement party, done up in a silver tiara and gauzy white gown embossed by sparkly Matisse-like cutout figures on her bust, belly, and backside, she appears to be the Queen of the Nile. None of Atwell’s Jazz Age faux-decadence convinces in the least.

Underscoring (and upstaging) the phoniness of the other actors, there’s a late entrance by Emma Thompson as a radiantly silver-maned Lady Marchmain. Thompson (no relation to yours truly, at least none that I’m aware of) effortlessly demonstrates the difference between acting and play-acting, a distinction lost on the younger generation. As Sebastian and Julia’s deeply religious, emotionally distant mother, Thompson doesn’t turn Lady Marchmain’s Catholic devotion into caricature. In movies, it’s usually the Christian who is the single most unbelievably written and acted character on screen (cf. Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Liaisons). Brideshead reverses this: it’s the atheist, personified by Matthew Goode as Ryder, whom I couldn’t buy. Yet in a dinner table meeting between Ryder and the family, with Lady Marchmain quizzing him about his background, his beliefs, or the lack thereof (“An agnostic, surely?”) Thompson energizes Goode. She holds him—and us—in her power, and the actor rises to match her, a little. Thompson has only a small role; this is, nonetheless, her most exacting and exciting work in longer than I can remember. After flubbing around in such inanities as Angels in America or throwing pies on the David Letterman show, she can still be great. When Sebastian drunkenly humiliates his mother and sister in front of the guests at Julia’s party, Thompson’s Lady Marchmain silently commands the orchestra to resume playing—a deft combination of power and defeat in the same gesture.

The rest of the time, Jarrold’s camera fetishizes Goode: the nape of his neck, the expanse of his bare chest once Ryder and Julia consummate—his bland, oily handsomeness becomes an object—a man who’s all eyelids, suntan, cigarettes, and unbuttoned collars.

Cinematographer Jess Hall lovingly photographs—to better effect—the grounds at Castle Howard. Hall achieves a number of stunning shots involving the sculptures on the yard, including the spectacular Atlas fountain in front of the family manse. In a truly arresting composition, a strongman cradles an enfant, lifting the newborn up into the air, on the far right edge of the frame, a vast blue sky dominating the physical space left and center. If only the entire film had been at that level of invention. When a statue has more to say to us than the leads, the filmmaking, if you’ll forgive a redundancy, has gone terribly wrong. – NPT

July 14, 2008

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