First things first, I am perhaps the worst person in the world to be reviewing Julian Jarrold’s adaptation of classic novel ‘Brideshead Revisited’. Not only have I, to my shame, never quite got round to reading Waugh’s most famous book, but I have also never seen the BBC’s apparently magnificent series. Nonetheless, it was clear from the beginning that Jarrold et al had a hard act to follow. For the most part, however, the result of their efforts is a sumptuous tour de force of high-calibre performances and superb visuals.
The film begins with a revisit to Brideshead, an English stately home of epic proportions. The visitor in question is a rather weathered Charles Ryder, recently stationed there at a time of war. It is here that he ponders the events which brought him to the house previously when, as an undergraduate at Oxford, he met and became entangled in the tempestuous Sebastian Flyte.
Cue class divides, a brother/sister love triangle, and a stern family matriarch played by Emma Thompson, and there you have it; a film which pulls you in closer and closer before finally casting you adrift in an unwanted though inevitable misery.
While Castle Howard, standing in for Brideshead, is perhaps the true star of the film, and the many Oxford locations make it worth a look for any student here, it is the two Flyte siblings who shine. Matthew Goode is likeable, if wooden, as Charles, but Ben Whishaw’s Sebastian and Hayley Atwell’s Julia are a compelling double-act who flawlessly express how duty, guilt and parental domination can lead to two very different outcomes linked so inextricably by the idea of rejection. Thompson’s Lady Marchmain is the perfect fusion of repressive and vulnerable, and comic relief is provided by the always excellent Ed Stoppard and Felicity Jones as Sebastian’s other siblings.
Such performances, though, are occasionally let down by a clunky script seemingly ordered straight from the Andrew Davies catalogue (and, surprise surprise, he has had a hand in this film). There are moments of understated humour, of tender exchanges, but they are often marred by the melodramatic presentation of the Catholic Church as the world’s great evil. Subtle it ain’t. And while I haven’t read the book, the whispered murmurs of those around me made it clear that some rather huge changes had been made to a beloved story.
Above all else, this film tells the story of a love triangle, and if this focus is not up your street then you are best sticking to the novel. That said, the costumes and cinematography cannot be faulted; every still is composed meticulously, lavishly bathed in crisp flannel suits or sleek satin gowns. Like last year’s ‘Atonement’, there are moments when ‘Brideshead’ has the look and feel of an advertisement for Chanel. It may just fall short of greatness, but it is a thing of beauty and a homage to an era of stifling duty and all-consuming love.