The Magazine

'Brideshead Revisited' Revisited

A cinematic bastardization six decades in the making.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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If you were forced to name the high-water mark of television, the 1981 Granada production of Brideshead Revisited would be a fine choice. Starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Claire Bloom, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier, Brideshead ran a luxurious 659 minutes, gliding smoothly along the rails laid by writer John Mortimer, who preserved the gorgeous textures of Evelyn Waugh's dialogue and his intricate story of love and faith. Mortimer's adaptation of Waugh's novel is one of the towering achievements of modern screenwriting. Twenty-seven years on, the series still inspires a cultish devotion.

Not content to leave well enough alone, Miramax will release a new theatrical version of Brideshead this August. The trailer for the film surfaced a few weeks ago (www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/bridesheadrevisited/) and it promises a new and improved Brideshead.

The Miramax logo is followed by the type of itchy violins that mark the Jason Bourne movies. The audience is shown an aerial shot of Castle Howard--the same residence in which the first Brideshead was filmed--and then brief scenes of Charles and Sebastian frolicking. Emma Thompson is revealed in the role of Lady Marchmain and then a series of title cards are shown as the music darkens to convey the mood of a thriller. "She welcomed him into her home," one card says. "Into a world of privilege." "Into a life he never imagined."

What follows is a series of vignettes featuring the characters of Waugh's Brideshead but in situations that are utterly unrecognizable. Charles Ryder seems to be a striving scholarship-boy, dazzled by the Marchmain fortune and determined to grab some piece of it for himself. When Lady Marchmain asks him what he wants in life, he replies, "I want to look back and say that I didn't turn my back. That I was happy." (A sentiment no British gentleman of that era would dare express even on the off chance he actually thought that way.)

We see Julia tagging along with Charles and Sebastian on their visit to Venice. This seems a small deviation until Lord Marchmain (played by the great Michael Gambon) places his arms around both Sebastian and Julia and creepily remarks to Charles, "What a lot of temptation," as if he were offering up his two children as playthings.

This notion of a love triangle among Charles, Sebastian, and Julia is a prominent feature, at least of the trailer. Sebastian cries out to Charles, "You don't care about me, all you ever wanted was my sister." The idea of homosexuality between Charles and Sebastian isn't new, of course. Waugh consciously alluded to it--without ever describing it--and the television series did the same. Anthony Andrews in the role of Sebastian was a stunningly beautiful boy--confident, eccentric, and gay. The new Brideshead stars Ben Whishaw as a wilted, fey, almost queeny, Sebastian.

But just as the trailer leaves Venice, the background music changes to synthesizers and angry drums as the plot of the new Brideshead is explained. More title cards tell us that it's the story of

One man's desire.

One man's ambition.

One man's passion.

One woman's control.

One woman's decision.

And finally, "One woman's power." Yes, the new Brideshead features a villain--Lady Marchmain. Instead of a pious, if clumsy, near-saint, Lady Marchmain is now ambitious and manipulative. "I hope you didn't let Julia mislead you," she sternly warns Charles. "Her future is not a question of choice." The future she seems to be alluding to is a marriage of power and wealth to a man of consequence. A moment later, we see Lady Marchmain at a large gala where she announces, "It gives me great pleasure to announce the engagement of my eldest daughter, Lady Julia Flyte, to Mister Rex Mottram." Waugh's Lady Marchmain never has plans for Julia's future--the Marchmains' situation is above either financial or social improvement. And when Julia becomes engaged to the decidedly non-Catholic Rex, Lady Marchmain is given the very opposite of pleasure.