Brideshead Revisited

The new Brideshead Revisited doesn't grapple much with Charles' disconcerting mix of nostalgia and odium regarding British aristocracy.

Brideshead Revisited

Director: Julian Jarrold
Cast: Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Ben Whishaw, Matthew Goode, Greta Scacchi
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Miramax Films
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-10-03 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-07-25 (Limited release)
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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.