Friday, July 2, 2010


I was reluctant to even countenance the film Brideshead Revisited (2008) because I have such vivid memories of the splendid television series. The exceptions that I took with the series were the same ones I took with the book: voluptuous, almost edible imagery committed to an unconvincing religious message. Waugh made one feel the pang of regret that everyone must have felt in 1945 for the lost world before the war, a world that Waugh missed so powerfully he made it live again in his writing.

Having seen it, the film improves on the series in some significant places. The casting is better, especially in the lead roles. Three actors in the series could never be bested: John Gielgud as Charles's father, Edward Ryder, Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche and Diana Quick as Julia Flyte. But I liked Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain, simply because Laurence Olivier was so old and frail in the series. And Emma Thompson is superb as Lady Marchmain, suggesting depths that Claire Bloom, in the series, did not. And Matthew Goode is an improvement on Jeremy Irons, who was a tad old for Charles even in 1981. And the film's elimination of practically all the ponderous narration of the series at least spares us Irons's awful lisp.

Neither the series nor the film manages to make Sebastian more than just the insufferable object of Charles' infatuation. (That teddy bear reminded me, of course, of Mr. Bean's.) Charles does extend his infatuation to Brideshead itself (played by Castle Howard in the series and the film), to Julia, and eventually to Jesus.

Poor Charles' wanting to belong to something greater than himself is the impetus behind the drama of Waugh's novel. He wanted to write a "Catholic" novel, just as Graham Greene had been doing, most effectively in The Power and the Glory. At just over two hours, the film foreshortens the story considerably, which was to be expected. But the series, which is nearly eleven hours long, did seem to drag in places, in its faithful but over-literal way. It seemed that Geoffrey Burgon's beautiful theme music was put through a few variations too many by the time the last episode arrived.

But there is one improvement in the film that is a quite surprising and somewhat shocking betrayal of Waugh. It comes in the famous scene in which Lord Marchmain repents on his deathbed. In the novel and the series, Charles watches as the dying old man crosses himself with his last ounces of strength and speaks in the first-person narration of being overwhelmed. Waugh stages it all quite directly and dramatically. It was the point at which Edmund Wilson balked at giving the novel, which he otherwise admired, his unqualified praise. The film shows Charles watching the scene from the back of the room, and because there is no narration, the depth of his feelings must be taken on trust.

Some critics have, astonishingly, remarked that the film saves the novel from itself by eliminating Charles' religious transformation. Waugh may have recanted some of the style in his novel when he wrote in the 1959 preface: "The book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful." But he did not regret the message of the novel. While the film supplies us with a much more subtle, too subtle, illustration of Charles' conversion (something that Waugh doesn't handle very well either), it is a tacit betrayal of Waugh's account. Neil Jordan did the same thing in his hideous "adaptation" of Greene's The End of the Affair. By eliminating the unexplained miracle of the disappearing birthmark, Jordan, while trying to fend off the incredulity of an unbelieving public, betrayed Greene and much of the redemptive sense of the novel. Why bother to adapt a book in the first place if you don't believe in it sufficiently to do it faithfully?*

But if the film of Brideshead Revisited were anything more than a series of tableaux vivant from the novel, such objections would be unnecessary. As it is, the film is stately and beautifully photographed, and the final out-of-focus image of Charles walking out the the chapel into the light of day will stay with me, I think, long after everything else from the film has faded from my memory.

*The last scene of the film shows Charles entering the Brideshead chapel, dipping his fingers in holy water just so he can douse a lone, burning candle in front of the altar. But he changes his mind, leaves the candle burning, and walks out the door.

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