Thursday, October 16, 2008

A better than it might have been Brideshead

The practising of the art of transferring great works of literature or drama into other media such as film or television is always likely to be controversial or divisive. Even when it is done supremely well, as when Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel “Brideshead Revisited” became an eleven-hour TV epic in 1981, not every lover of the original was happy. And now, in a world that is as different from 1981 as 1981 was from 1945, we have the movie of the book – and reverential critics have not just the literature to compare it with but also the hugely admired TV series as well. And the film, in the eyes of most reviewers, is not a patch on the series and for some it is a travesty of the book as well. I beg to differ.

I don’t think that Julian Jarrold’s Brideshead is a great film or even, perhaps, a very good one. But it isn’t as bad as many of the reviewers have opined. It is beautifully filmed – surely some prize for cinematography for Jess Hall would be in order. The script is also pretty good – Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock have wisely stuck with Waugh’s original as far as possible. The story is well told and whilst a few liberties have been taken, some quite unnecessary, nothing too much is left out – quite a masterpiece of compression.

The casting is competent rather inspired with one or two exceptions. I thought that Ben Whishaw’s Sebastian Flyte worked surprisingly well. He wasn’t very pretty in a convectional way (as Anthony Andrews undoubtedly had been in the TV series) but he was quite beguiling – and , crucially, he looked like a gay alcoholic almost from the start. He didn’t gradually descend into alcoholism but he revealed these tendencies from the beginning – which I think was right. He also looked like his sister Julia, played by Hayley Atwell and they were credible as siblings for this reason alone. Hayley Atwell was enchanting – although quite a modern Julia I thought. But the scene when she goes swimming in the Lido in Venice showed her charms off well – and Charles Ryder clearly thought so to.

The trouble with the Venice segment is that it stayed from Waugh completely. Julia never went to Venice at the same time as Charles in the book and it is quite unnecessary for her to do so (looking good in a bathing costume is insufficient reason). What this irritating scene did was to suggest a far stronger ménage a trios than is apparent in the book. Charles came much more slowly to succumb to Julia’s charms in Waugh’s original and to portray it as otherwise was a cheap shot and silly. Similarly when you compress a long and complex novel into a little over two hours why invent new scenes – the Crnival was well filmed, but it isn’t in the book and it was gratuitous?

I enjoyed Matthew Goode’s Charles Ryder very much – it was a close imitation of Jeremy Irons and none the worse for that. But he should have had a moustache in the Army scenes – every officer did at the time and he looked odd without one!

But what about the religion? After reading the book you will wonder why Evelyn Waugh became a Catholic convert. After seeing the film you will think that he must have been certifiable to do so. Charles Ryder also follows the Waugh conversion to Catholic path and there is no logic in the film to this whatsoever. Catholicism in the Marchmain family
version is an evil doctrine that screws up marriages, relationships, families, people and lives. Why the hell would Charles Ryder want anything to do with this gruesome faith? He rails against the phoney hypocrisy at Lord Marchmain’s deathbed – his atheist stance seems incontestable at the time. So why would he move to Rome later as Waugh makes clear that he does. The film cannot and does not explain.

Emma Thompson is superb as the ghastly Lady Marchmain and Michael Gambon equally as good as her estranged husband. Indeed I cannot really fault any of the performances and they do not fail to measure up to the equally fine acting in the TV series of 1981.

Did I enjoy the movie? Yes I think that I did and I didn’t really expect to. The book is my favourite novel of all – so I am likely to be a harsh critic. I didn’t like the messing around with the plot, but in the main it was true to the original. If as a result of seeing the film many people go out and read the book for the first time (I hope they do) then it will have achieved something worthwhile.