Brideshead Revisited

Starring Hayley Atwell, Ben Whishaw, Matthew Goode, Emma Thompson

Directed by Julian Jarrold

Rated PG-13

Lust for companionship. For God. For love. For real estate. For family.

Everyone in Brideshead Revisited is hungry for something, and it gets them into terrific trouble.

But even lust in pre-WWII England is a tidy, circumscribed thing. Based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited centers on a world thoroughly alien from our own gut-spilling age. It is a place of such quicksilver eroticism that a cigarette lit by a man and passed to a woman’s lips can seem more thrilling and sensuous than all of the acrobatic sexcapades of contemporary film.

It is the yearning for a place in the world that defines Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a child of the killjoy British middle-class. His grim, joyless home life is exemplified by an affectless father who can barely be bothered to look up from his soup as Charles heads off for his first year at Oxford University. Initiated into Oxford by his boorish, middle-class cousin, there is the suggestion that Charles could easily tread his father’s same safe, unhappy, narrow road. But Charles is an artist with aspirations to be something better.

He’s therefore drawn by the allure of the dashing, flamboyant aristocrats on campus. “Sodomites. All of them!” his cousin protests, which only seems to pique Charles’ interest. Like a cat marking his territory, the titled, dipsomaniac Lord Sebastian Flyte (an utterly beguiling Ben Whishaw) virtually assures a meeting between Charles and himself when he leans through a dorm window and throws up on Charles’ floor. The next morning there is an extravagant note and bouquets of flowers by way of apology. Charles is thus dramatically ushered into Sebastian’s world of privilege, where drunkenness is required and intense friendships between college chums stop shy of intercourse.

These introductory scenes of the ribald, champagne-swilling aristocrats, and Charles’ induction into Sebastian’s excesses, are some of the film’s best: The pair eat strawberries on a riverbank and skinny dip in fountains. It’s a pleasure to see such richly drawn, outrageous characters also imbued with such heart. Beneath his excesses, Sebastian is singularly wounded. He comes burdened with a Mommie Dearest, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), whose extreme strain of Catholicism injects religious guilt into her family like a poison. One of Brideshead‘s assertions is how incompletely its characters escape the wounds of their guilt-centered Catholic childhoods, including Sebastian’s beautiful sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), who soon becomes Charles’ romantic fixation.

Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is a story about Catholic grace as witnessed through the eyes of atheist Charles. But like so many British dramas, Brideshead derives no small measure of entertainment from its portrait of the British class hierarchy and Charles’ aspirations to a higher class standing. Early in Brideshead Revisited, as Charles gawks at the oil paintings and statues and splendor of Brideshead, Sebastian chides him: “Don’t be such a tourist!” And so he remains, a tourist in the strange country of class and religion and the other country of the Flyte family.

Waugh was accused by some of elitism, of propping up the aristocratic world he longed to join. Director Julian Jarrold might occasionally be accused of the same. Wealth and privilege have rarely looked so luscious. By comparison, forays outside Mother England are imbued with the frightening aura of the Other.

Where Brideshead Revisited flags is in how the thrills of its opening half stack up against the relatively diminished charms of its second part. As any British drama worth its salt will assert, repression always trumps consummation. And so the chemistry in the homosexual flirtation between Charles and Sebastian is more intense, funnier, and it tends to make Charles’ later ardor for Julia almost anticlimactic. As the film wears on, its energy dissipates to some extent: How many fervid love affairs, after all, can one film support?