With remakes as common these days as lint in the dryer, you wouldn’t think that anyone would even bat an eye when he or she heard that a “masterpiece” was being remade, but that’s not always the case. When it was announced that Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” was getting a new lease in life, the outrage was so fierce that you would have thought that someone had threatened the Queen. Well, not quite. You see, back in 1981, Britain’s ITV aired an 11-episode, 660-minute (that’s 11 hours to you and me) mini-series that was praised from one end of the island to the next. In Britain, it earned a staggering 13 BAFTA nominations and won 7 of those, with awards given for Best Drama Series and Best Actor (Anthony Andrews). In the United States, it aired on PBS, as one of its “Great Performances,” and received a similar outpouring of love, earning 11 Emmy nominations, but only winning one, for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series (Laurence Olivier). Before “Brideshead Revisited” did anyone in the U.S. even know who Jeremy Irons or Anthony Andrews were?
Flash forward 27 years, and a much more manageable “Brideshead” – its running time is 133 minutes – is appearing in select cinemas. The basic story is still the same. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a captain stationed at Brideshead Castle during World War II, recalls his friendships and emotional upsets with the Flyte siblings – Julia (Hayley Atwell) and Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) – their Italy-living father Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), his mistress (Greta Scacchi) and their domineering mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). With a script by Jeremy Brock (“The Last King of Scotland”) and Andrew Davies (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”), “Brideshead” has, naturally, been condensed and, in many cases changed, to create a less than epic length. Many of these changes are drastic. Waugh wrote a novel about Catholic faith; the film, at least to me, comes across as anti-religious, making Lady Marchmain’s Catholicism the cause of the family’s dysfunction. Sebastian, a fey child-man (he carries a Teddy bear), is undoubtedly a homosexual, but because of his mother’s religion, he can’t gain acceptance from her. To cope, he represses who he is and becomes a self-destructive alcoholic. Julia probably loves Charles, and vice versa, but mother is determined that she marry a Catholic. Therefore, Julia is matched with an American who later “sells” her for a few paintings. The father abandons his wife, because, he says, she loves her faith more than she does him. As I said, this film is no longer about “faith.”
Because our attitudes, hopefully, have changed about homosexuality and class strictures have loosened, the story feels out of date and lacking in meaning. I came away more frustrated by the characters’ inability to change their lives than I was sympathetic to their woes. “Brideshead” reminded me of the E.M. Forster films I loved in my youth. You know “Room with a View,” “Maurice” and “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” They also contained characters that were socially and sexually repressed. It’s undoubtedly an English thing. During the first 20 minutes of “Brideshead,” I felt nostalgic then as the film continued I became increasingly irritated. Whether or not this is “classic” literature, I still didn’t enjoy it.
In the film’s trailer, a critic announces that “Brideshead” is the film that all the “intelligent” moviegoers – whoever they are – have been waiting for. So what have the “unintelligent” ones been waiting for? “Pineapple Express?” The acting in “Brideshead,” especially by Whishaw was good, and I’m sure it will catapult Atwell’s career, if for no other reason than she looks like Kate Beckinsale. In fact, artistically you can’t complain much about it. I would, however, consider myself an intelligent filmgoer, and yet I haven’t been pining for “Brideshead,” and I wouldn’t watch it again on a dare. The 21st century is much more appealing.