Evelyn Waugh's novel was adapted for television in 1981 and became one of the most celebrated miniseries of all time. Given that it took more than 11 hours to tell its tale of love, lust, ambition and envy, it's something of a surprise that anyone would try to remake it as a single motion picture of only 135 minutes, but then again, a monkey once became prime minister of Prussia, so I guess anything can happen.
Of course, this new movie is an extremely condensed version of Waugh's story, and this creates a number of problems, the most serious of which is that the first half of the film touches only major story points, and sacrifices character development in the process. As a result, the opening feels shallow, as though it were presented in outline. For those who don't already know the story, the opening half will probably seem like a random assortment of events with no connecting thread.
The story is reasonably rewarding if you can stick it out. For those who missed the BBC version and who refuse to look at outmoded media forms like "books," (a primitive word-transmission system that was popular in the previous century), the plot centers on Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a lower-middle-class student at Oxford. There, he meets Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), second son of Lord and Lady Marchmain, owners of the magnificent Brideshead estate. Ben Whishaw's performance as Sebastian has some real emotional bite to it, but he overplays the homosexual affections until they become caricatured. This may not be his fault; with little time to flesh out the character, he's reduced to some obvious symbolic gestures to convey young Lord Flyte's purpose.
Plot-wise, that purpose is to get Charles Ryder to Brideshead. As Sebastian falls in love with Charles and invites him to the house (the film uses Castle Howard for Brideshead, the same castle used in the BBC miniseries), Charles himself falls in love--but not with Sebastian. Rather, it is with the opulent trappings of wealth, something he's never experienced in his bleak London life.
Still, Sebastian is the symbol and key to that life, so Charles' affections are directed toward him. It's unclear in the book, and in the movie, whether they make the beast with four testicles or not, but their love has a definite sexual intensity. In this film version, director Julian Jarrold is especially cagey on the point, because he wants to stress how much Charles is in love with Sebastian's home. It may be that Charles so wants a taste of the aristocratic life that he's willing to taste other, saltier things as well, or perhaps he just leads Sebastian up to, but not into, a dark and hairy passageway.
It's at Brideshead that Charles meets the person who is to become the central love of his love: Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). This doesn't go over so well with Sebastian, nor with Lady Marchmain (Sebastian and Julia's mother), and ultimately, Charles is banished from Brideshead.
The story from there is about Charles' attempts to return to that life, but again, the brevity makes this story seem simpler than it should be. The complexity of Charles' feelings aren't completely neglected, and Goode does an excellent job of conveying the ambiguity in Charles' relationship with Julia. But the film is so strongly about Charles' interest in Brideshead that all other considerations become secondary, and while that's thematically important to the story, it would be more effectively told if we could see in action that Charles at least feels that his love of Julia is authentic.
On the plus side, this Brideshead is stunningly photographed. And Emma Thompson, who plays Lady Marchmain, is chillingly good in the role. Thematically, the novel is in large part an exploration of the role of Catholicism in the lives of the Flytes, and Lady Marchmain illustrates a special kind of abuse available only to the religious, in that she can justify all her manipulations as divinely sanctioned. This could come off as cartoony and naively irreligious, but Thompson's characterization is deep with righteousness and vision, producing a figure who is simultaneously evil and caring. That kind of layering, which is lacking in many of the other characters, is what Brideshead should be about.
So this version is a mixed bag. One-note characters like Sebastian's older brother "Bridey" (Ed Stoppard) and Charles' single-minded father (Patrick Malahide) are reduced to punch lines, but they're funny punch lines and neatly break up the film's melancholy. Sebastian, though, should be deeper than he is, and Julia is so poorly explored that it seems like she's there mostly to look pretty, at which she succeeds, but her role as the epitome of the sometimes destructive demands of faith is handled rather too quickly.
Still, if you want to see a well-photographed, sharply edited, CliffsNotes version of Brideshead, this one will probably cover your needs and provide enough details for a B+ on your midterm paper for English 201, "Gay Catholic Mini-Series Literature of the 20th Century."