Brideshead Revisited (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: July 25th, 2008

You could not ask for a better screen adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It's a stunning, gripping and visually sumptuous cinematic feast that is like a breath of fresh air in the onslaught of summer movies. But purists, beware.


First published just as World War II was ending, Evelyn Waugh's weighty literary masterpiece was turned into a wildly successful British mini-series in 1981. For some strange reason, however, Brideshead Revisited has never been given a motion picture adaptation--until now. Although the story basically remains the same, much of plot threads have been dropped or truncated and some liberty has been taken with at least one major character. Set in the pre-World War II era, this romantic tale spans a couple of decades telling the saga of atheist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) and his fascination, even obsession, with the very regal and very catholic Marchmain family--now led by ultra-stiff matriarch Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), whose husband (Michael Gambon) is AWOL with his Italian mistress (Greta Scacchi). Centering around his "friendship" with the charming and adventurous son, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), Charles' affections and apparent sexual confusion find new fodder with Sebastian's beautiful sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). When the threesome take off for Venice to visit patriarch Lord Marchmain, the romance between Charles and Julia takes off causing numerous complications for everyone involved.


Rising star Goode, so fine in Woody Allen's Match Point, meets his promise here making the ideal Charles, a young man flirting with his own sexual and religious identity in the fallow period between World Wars. His charm quotient is so heavy, it's easy to see how he could attract both Sebastian and Julia, equally well-played by Whishaw and Atwell. Whishaw (I'm Not There) nails the wild side of his character, taking Sebastian much further into gay territory than suggested in either the book or the mini-series. Atwell's Julia also takes a departure from previous versions, particularly when she joins the guys in Venice--a plot turn solely invented for this film adaptation. It has the effect of increasing the tension, sexual and otherwise, between the three main characters and allows the film to fully focus on this aspect of Waugh's original story. Atwell is a real find who fully explores the confused but captivated journey Julia must take. Sprightly two-time Oscar winner Thompson is at first glance an odd choice to play the unbending Lady Marchmain but she proves her worth, giving the woman an extra dimension of humanity she doesn't appear to have when we first meet her. Gambon is superb as the family's dying patriarch with fine support from the still-beautiful Scacchi as his mistress.


Young British director Julian Jarrold followed his feature debut, the refreshing offbeat comedy Kinky Boots with last summer's bland and boring Jane Austen period piece Becoming Jane. With the hot-blooded Brideshead adaptation, he is on his game again, clearly demonstrating complete control over the sprawling story and intertwined relationships that are key to Waugh's novel. Choosing to focus on the central triangle of Sebastian, Charles and Julia more fully than ever before is a wise decision and brings the audience right in to the thick of things, rather than taking the many side trips of the mini-series. Of course, with only two hours instead of 12, painful decisions had to be made, and Jarrold, with screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, have delivered a version that meets our expectations, without dashing them. Unless, of course, you are a Waugh purist in which case it's probably best to revisit the mini-series. There can be no argument about the visual splendors provided here though, particularly the location filming at Castle Howard, one of England's oldest and most striking estates. Waugh's extensive descriptions of the splendors of Brideshead Manor are perfectly realized through the spot-on choice of locales and the film's superb cinematography and production design.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.