Following both Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel and a much-loved, 12-hour 1980s British TV miniseries starring Jeremy Irons, the new film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited has a lot to live up to. And this mid-grade Merchant-Ivory from a team of young British filmmakers and writers — director Julian Jarroid (Becoming Jane) and screenwriters Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones' Diary) and Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland) — feels condensed even if you haven't seen or read its source material.
A period drama that takes place (mostly in England, but with fruitful excursions to Venice and Morocco) between the world wars, Brideshead Revisited is similar to Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers: an emotional triangle among a brother, a sister, and a fascinated outsider, which plays out against a period of social upheaval.
The protagonist is Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), an aspiring painter of modest means who goes to Oxford and is befriended by aristocratic fop, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), who first draws his intrigued new find into his rarefied campus social circle and then whisks him off to Brideshead, an opulent ancestral home (the film uses the same location as the 1980s series) littered with priceless art that entrances Charles.
This holiday tryst of sorts — not quite platonic, not quite sexual — is the strongest portion of the film, but the boys-of-summer idyll is interrupted when Sebastian's family arrives, most notably his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), who vies for Charles' affections, and his domineering, devout mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson).
Brideshead Revisited's lavish art direction is always worth gazing at, and Thompson and Michael Gambon (as the clan's estranged patriarch) add some needed gravitas to a film whose young leads are pretty low-wattage. But the film's themes — class and religious boundaries, the decline of the aristocracy — are not well developed.
The film's ending suggests Charles is an opportunist manipulating the family to worm his way into their world, but all the evidence portrays Charles as lost and confused. And whether it's the actress or the script, Atwell doesn't have the heft to make the film's doomed romance matter much.
By the end, you're supposed to feel some sense of loss, not just for the characters but for a way of life. I felt nothing but moderately intrigued by the bare bones of something that could have been a lot better. This decent adaptation is just good enough to serve as something of a two-hour advertisement for the novel and miniseries, both of which presumably make much more out of a promising story.
Opening Friday, August 1st