July 31, 2008

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Brideshead Revisited (PG)
Repressed Brits long and ache and pine but donít, you know, freakiní do stuff already in Brideshead Revisited, an achy and longing-filled adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh book about fading empires, thwarted relationships and only a little bit about religion.

I never saw the 1981 PBS adaptation and (in that itís something like 11 hours long) Iím pretty sure no force on this Earth could make me. Continents drift faster. I suppose Iím slightly more inclined to read the novel now but I basically come at this story having only the movie (not its comparison to a Jeremy Irons performance or to Cliffís Notes) as reference. As presented here, Brideshead Revisited is something like The Great Gatsby though slower and less dramatic but equally downbeat at the end ó The Great Gatsby but more British, I guess youíd say. Iím sure thereís some kind of commentary in there about the difference between the British and the Americans, that our novels about social climbers with unfulfilled dreams feature a hit-and-run and a shooting.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is perhaps starved for a little action himself, coming as he does from a house shared with a father with a Sahara-dry sense of humor. When he arrives at Oxford, he seems more interested than icked by the boy who pokes his head through Charlesí window and then pukes. When the boy, Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), invites Charles to his rooms for lunch the next day, Charles learns that not only does Sebastian know how to make an entrance, he also throws a good party and knows how to cut class with style. Thusly do Charles and Sebastian begin a fast and close friendship that is, at least in this movie, based some on Sebastianís attraction to Charles and some on Charlesí wonderment at the bright one-man party that is Sebastian. Itís on a tension-filled visit to Sebastianís house that Charles gets the first glimpse into just how wealthy Sebastian is ó Brideshead, the Flyte family home, looks like it could easily be in the same subdivision with Versailles and the Czarís St. Petersburg palace. But Sebastian seems acutely ill-at-ease there and hustles Charles away.

Later, however, Sebastian must decide that he is more ill-at-ease at being without Charles than he is at the thought of bringing him home, because he cajoles Charles to join him at Brideshead for the summer. After a golden-hued stay full of drinking and cavorting and the hint of some hot Oxford-boy-on-Oxford-boy action, Sebastianís mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) arrives at Brideshead, shuts down the fun and invites Charles into the more formal side of the familyís life. Charles, enchanted by Sebastian and utterly struck dumb by his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), seems to enjoy this stuffier, oppression-filled Brideshead just as much as he did the hedonistic guest house part of it. Having become pretty much a fixture at Brideshead, Charles even accompanies Julia and Sebastian when they go to Venice to visit their father Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), a man who is himself rather jolly and hedonistic. Having had too much of his wifeís Catholicism and black cloud of guilt, Lord Marchmain now lives in a lovely Venetian house with his lovely Venetian mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi). But the freedom and beauty of Venice becomes too much for these ripe-fruit-Brits and, during one messy night, the tangled rope of a brother and sister both liking the same man trips up all of them.

This lusty first act sets up the Charles/Flyte-family relationship that works as the track along which the rest of this slow train travels. The next time we see Sebastian heís a full-fledged alcoholic and Charles is still dreaming of Julia. Skip forward and Sebastian has escaped Brideshead but finds himself in physical peril. Go forward more and Julia and Charles meet again. Their potential relationship has been ruled impossible from the start by Lady Marchmain, who declares that Julia must marry a Catholic.

Guilt and religion rule the heart of Lady Marchmain and are in turn the tools she uses to rule her children. She shoves Julia into marriage and feebly attempts to separate Sebastian from his liquor (while ignoring her role in his problem), all in the name of her devotion to God. Or so she says. Thompson plays Lady Marchmain with such steely inscrutability that youíre not really sure why she does what she does but youíd be inclined to guess it has something to do with world domination. In fact, the idea that sheís just a nosy mom is sort of anticlimactic ó a character that deft with intimidation should really be leading an army or threatening world leaders with a giant laser gun.

Every scene with Lady Marchmain is three times as good as the ones without her and every scene with Sebastian is twice as good as the ones without him. Itís a shame, therefore, that most of the movie gives us just anxious, furrowed-brow-having Julia and Charles. Their performances arenít bad but they are very reminiscent of the kind of heatless performances given by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in Atonement. And as with that movie, I found myself here wanting to fast-forward.

Brideshead Revisited isnít bad ó in fact it seems very solemnly executed with great pains taken to make us feel the visuals, the majesty of Brideshead, the sad beauty of Julia. But, like the titular real estate, the movie is maybe too grand, too perfect and never really feels lived in. C+

Rated PG-13 for some sexual content. Directed by Julian Jarrold and written by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies (from the book by Evelyn Waugh), Brideshead Revisited is two hours and 15 minutes very long and is distributed by Miramax Films.