I don’t mind the art. It’s the religion I can’t stand.
— Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon)
Charles Ryder incarnates any number of perennial conflicts. A painter, he wants desperately to be accepted (even revered), but also values his independence, his sense of difference from everyone else. Skeptical of religious institutions, he also yearns for the certainty afforded by belief. Angry at his withholding widower father, he seeks romance and fears passion.
Charles is, of course, the narrator of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), source of a 11-hour television series in 1981, and now, Julian Jarrold’s 100-minute movie. In the latter, portrayed by Matthew Goode, he early on appears unable to focus on the clinky social conventions of a London exhibition of his work. Even as his wife Celia (Anna Madeley) networks the room, he finds himself distracted by the sudden appearance of another woman. After he follows her through hallways and past mirrors, she finally turns to look at him. The film all but stops when she speaks, her face the cue for the lengthy flashback that will make up its bulk.
If Charles’ story is all about revisiting, Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell) here serves as its vexing inspiration. Daughter of Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) and sister to Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), Julia is here also the ultimate object of Charles’ various desires — for wealth, order, and intimacy. Looking back on how he came to meet Julia, he lays out how ready he was to be saved, or at least removed from his dreary middle-class background. His first scene in the past pits him plainly against his bespectacled father Edward (Patrick Malahide), who hardly glances up from his soup to note Charles is wearing a coat, the sign that he’s headed to Oxford.
The tedious device of the father’s stiff formality leads directly where you know it will — to Charles’ enchantment by the utter abandon he sees in Sebastian. Uninterested in classes, Sebastian and his flock of colorful friends (including the barely glimpsed queen Anthony Blanche [Joseph Beattie]) sit about in their rooms during the afternoons, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and entertaining one another with pronouncements concerning art, sex, and philosophy. Charles, rather too easily impressed, given his limited history, soon finds himself traipsing along with Sebastian and his teddy bear, reimagining himself as a clever person with ideas worth sharing.
It’s clear from the start of their relationship that Sebastian is crushing deeply on Charles, and if the novel and miniseries left somewhat ambiguous Charles’ own inclinations, the movie makes clear enough his straightness. In a scene added, a drunken Sebastian kisses Charles, who tolerates the gesture and even seems to contemplate its meaning, and then turns away. The scene occurs at Brideshead, the family estate where Sebastian brings his new “friend,” and where Charles will meet the imperious Lady Marchmain and enticing Julia, each playing her part in the collapse of Charles’ allegiance to Sebastian.
While this collapse does trouble Charles, he is able to deflect self-criticism (if he were ever so disposed in this version of his saga) by taking aim at the ladies. In this process, he has some help, in the form of a comparison to Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), who has not only turned his back on his wife and her frankly frightening Catholicism, but has bestowed his affections on a predictably sensuous Italian, Cara (Greta Scacchi). No surprise, a summer vacation in Venice with this scandalous half of the family leaves Charles in something of a tailspin. Not only does he come to see that Lord Marchmain is a generous father and angry ex, but also that Cara is as wise and kind as Lady Marchmain is forbidding. When she cautions Charles not to be careless of Sebastian, the incessantly self-regarding interloper appears suddenly incapable of self-analysis.
Charles’s blindness when it comes to his own desires and actions makes him a complicated and intriguing narrator, but the film works hard to confirm his perspective and blame others, in particular Lady Marchmain. Charles is repeatedly repulsed by her efforts to save her children, to impress on them the religion, morality, and rituals she so fervently believes in. And so the camera shows her leading her children (including Cordelia [Felicity Jones], whose role is much reduced in the film) in prayer and repentance, odious shadows and ornate architecture making visible his disapproval.
Such literalization, even more pronounced in Jarrold’s Becoming Jane, enervates the novel’s disturbing and often lively ambiguities (however these reflect or obscure Waugh’s own experiences). That’s not to say the film clarifies all of Charles’ motives or justifies his efforts to identify himself in opposition to the Marchmain clan. It does, however, focus closely on his increasingly insular storytelling, and so muddies potential contexts. The movie doesn’t grapple much with Charles’ disconcerting mix of nostalgia and odium regarding British aristocracy, or delve into his part as an army officer during World War II, except as this brings him back — again — to Brideshead.