Lit Crit

Brideshead Reconstructed

January 28, 2009

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Brideshead Reconstructed

If subtlety is central to good art, then the new Miramax presentation of Brideshead Revisited fails on every account. Not only does this film fall short of a decent adaptation, but it was painful to watch.

Evelyn Waugh’s novel by the same name ranks as one of the greats of the 20th century. In it, Waugh portrays the terribly flawed Marchmain family, Catholic aristocrats living between the two world wars in England, from the eyes of the agnostic Charles Ryder. The overarching theme of the book points toward a defense of Catholicism, albeit presented in a secular form. It can also be read as a defense of elitism, the ancestral, and generally of Christianity; and a criticism of egalitarianism, democracy, and even Winston Churchill.

It remains a perennial problem to adapt an exceptional novel to film. (It’s probably a better strategy to take a mediocre novel, like The Forsyte Saga, and turn it into an exceptional miniseries, as was done in 1967.) And given the nuance of Brideshead, the difficulty is amplified. Regardless, the creators of the 1981 miniseries Brideshead Revisited were up to task. The series remains mostly faithful the novel, subtlety exists, and we witness outstanding performances by Jeremy Irons (Charles Ryder), Anthony Andrews (Lord Sebastian Flyte), John Gielgud (Edward Ryder), and Laurence Olivier (Marquess of Marchmain).

The same cannot be said for this recent 2008 adaptation. From the very start, the casting proves flawed. Although Matthew Goode adequately plays Charles Ryder, his performance pales in comparison to Irons’. And it only gets worse. Ben Whishaw captures none of the mannerisms or occasional likeability of Sebastian Flyte, Hayley Atwell’s Julia Flyte is boring, Jonathan Cake’s Rex Mottram is unbelievable, and Emma Thompson’s Marchioness of Marchmain is so severe she’s almost a caricature. 

The true blame, however, lies not with the acting, but with the writing, as nothing can be done with a bad script, and the writers of this screenplay attempt to turn a great novel into a political manifesto–one, no doubt, critical of Christianity and extolling the virtues of homosexuality. It’s disheartening that, on the one had, contemporary neoconservatives utilize a so-called Christian universalism to eradicate any pride Westerners might have in their ancestral traditions (such as those adumbrated in this film); while on the other hand, the Left, like the creators of this film, repay the deed by further denunciations. By deconstructing and distorting the underlying meanings of Brideshead, this movie throws out the baby with the bathwater. One is left with shallow social commentary.

In Wagh’s novel, no evidence points toward any homosexual acts committed between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. In fact, their relationship appears platonic. But even if buggery took place, the moral of the story is clear. The book in no way condones a modern homosexual identity. Charles, after his friendship with Sebastian, leads a heterosexual life (although an adulterous one), whereas Sebastian, although living in a rat-hole in North Africa with some gimpy German deserter missing half his foot, only finds true solace through the largess of local monks. Regardless, this did not stop the creators of this film from making homosexuality a central theme. Throughout the picture one is bombarded with gratuitous kissing and holding-hands scenes between Charles and Sebastian.

According to this rendition, Charles and Sebastian would have been happy, if it weren’t for Sebastian’s overbearing Catholic mother–who comes off more as a Tammy Faye Baker than Waugh’s dignified Marchioness of Marchmain. She constantly indoctrinates poor Sebastian with Catholic doctrine, which, of course, leads him to drinking. If she had only embraced who he truly was! (In contrast, Lord Marchmain’s mistress, Cara, is a good liberal Catholic–one in the mold of a Caroline Kennedy.)

But things become more complex. Here Brideshead Revisited meets Melrose Place. Although in Waugh’s novel Julia Flyte remains a minor character in the first part of the story, not here.  Early on, Charles is caught kissing Julia, almost immediately after kissing Sebastian. He must choose. Will he go the straight route (Julia) or the gay route (Sebastian)? Or will the three of them live happily together as a three-some? Maybe they could, but again enters Sebastian’s evil mother, taunting the children with more of that bigoted Christian doctrine.

One could go on about other flaws with this “adaptation,” such as its protean ending, but it’s probably better to say no more. Although not Catholic, I was always drawn to Waugh’s novel because of its subtle plot, brilliant character development, and overarching beauty, none of which is present in this movie, which leads us to a larger question: is good art possible in the age of political correctness?  Must every great artifact of the West be cheapened through the lens of political correctness? 

At the beginning of Waugh’s novel Charles’ cousin Jasper gives him this advice at Oxford:

You’re reading History?   A perfectly respectable school.   The very worst is English Literature and the next worse is Modern Greats.  You want either a first or a fourth.  There is no value in anything between.  Time spent on a good second is time thrown away.  You should to go the best lectures – Arkwright on Demosthenes for instance – irrespective of whether they are in your school or not….  Clothes.  Dress as you do in a country house.  Never wear a tweed coat and flannel trousers – always a suit.  And go to a London tailor; you get better cut and longer credit….  Clubs.  Join the Carlton now and the Grid at the beginning of your second year.  If you want to run for the Union – and it’s not a bad thing to do – make your reputation outside first, at the Canning or the Chatham, and begin by speaking on the paper…. Keep clear of Boar’s Hill….

Were he alive today, he’d probably add: And keep clear of tawdry films based on novels. Time spent on cheap adaptations is time thrown away.

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