Dir: Julian Jarrold. UK . 2008. 120 mins.
Evelyn Waugh's greatest novel gets a respectable new film treatment from a team of Britain 's biggest names, although it will inevitably remain in the shadow of the 1981 TV series which to this day is a global symbol of the lost glamour and decadence of the British aristocracy.
Media will pester the film with comparisons to the book and the series. While the mini-series followed the details of Waugh's story closely over an 11-hour running time, writers Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock and director Julian Jarrold have had to condense the whole saga into 120 minutes here, which presents some problems with rhythm and subtlety.
But upscale audiences, even those familiar with the series, will be beguiled anew by the themes of repressed desire, religious fundamentalism and social ambition, all of which are as pertinent today as they were in 1945 when the book was first published.
Distributors can rely on the brand name of the title, not to mention the lush production values and attractive cast, which combines hot new names with the UK thespian establishment.
The production doesn't attempt to reinvent the material in a particularly new or cinematic way, even going so far as to reuse Castle Howard, the stately home from the miniseries, as its Brideshead. The producers were smart enough to know that this kind of iconic story should not be restyled too much for fear of offending core fans. The result is good enough to do strong business, if not inspired enough to win awards.
Central to the success of any Brideshead is the casting of its colourful characters. Matthew Goode, a rising star best known for Match Point and The Lookout, is a highly effective anchor to the drama as Charles Ryder and Ben Whishaw, another bold new talent who has already worked for Jane Campion, Todd Haynes and Tom Tykwer, makes Sebastian Flyte his own uniquely-troubled creation.
Less successful are the two key women in the film. Hayley Atwell, who played a similar role in The Line Of Beauty on TV, struggles to define the conflicted Julia (and is not helped by a singularlyunpreposessing wardrobe). And Emma Thompson seems miscast as the piously Catholic and inscrutable Lady Marchmain, too warm an actress to inhabit such a chilly character. Although she is as watchable as ever, the spectre of Claire Bloom, so perfectly patrician in the series, looms large in the background.
Bookended by scenes at Brideshead during World War II, the film starts in earnest at Oxford in the 20s as solidly middle-class undergraduate Charles becomes entranced by Sebastian, the younger son of the Marchmain clan, his wealthy ways, outrageous behaviour and snooty social set. But while Sebastian has fallen in love with Charles, the heterosexual Charles instead falls for with the Marchmain family home Brideshead and his sister, the beautiful Julia.
Over the next 20 years, Ryder's desire to fit in with the Marchmains can never quite be realized as the family's devout Catholicism continually thwarts his ambitions.
Jarrold skilfully keeps up a certain momentum through all the shifts in time and place (Venice, Morocco, a transatlantic Ocean Liner), although the finale at Brideshead is disappointingly unemotional. The momentous shifts that take place around Lord Marchmain's return to Brideshead speak for themselves but they are over-verbalised here, diluting some of the story's tragedy.
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Adapted from the novel by Eve lyn Waugh
Director of photography