Atheist artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, "Match Point," "The Lookout") meets aristocrat Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," "I'm Not There") at Oxford and comes to know his family through his visits to Sebastian's home. Their Catholicism and Sebastian's manipulative mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, "Stranger Than Fiction," "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") will prove a barrier to Charles's love for Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell, "Cassandra's Dream"). Those tormented years are recalled by Ryder as a British soldier in WWII when he is stationed at the Flytes's former home in "Brideshead Revisited."
Laura's Review: B
Working with an adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel by Jeremy Brock ("The Last King of Scotland") and Andrew Davies (PBS's "Bleak House"), director Julian Jarrold ("Kinky Boots," "Becoming Jane") tries to accomplish in 135 minutes what the well-loved 1981 PBS series, which made a star of Jeremy Irons, took 11 hours to unfold. While not quite a Cliff Notes version, this "Brideshead, which again uses Castle Howard as the titular home, concentrates on the Charles-Sebastian-Julia story to the detriment of many supporting players but without losing the novel's religious themes. We begin near the end of the story, as Charles, now an unhappily married but successful painter, is exhibiting his jungle series on board ship when he spies Julia across the room and follows her. Ten years earlier, he takes leave of his very dry dad (Patrick Malahide, "The World Is Not Enough," "Billy Elliot") and meets up with Cousin Jasper (Richard Teverson) to get a lay of the land. That does not include Lord Sebastian, who introduces himself by vomiting through the window into Charles's ground floor room (and immediately revealing his primary sin). Apologetic the next day, Sebastian pulls Charles into his 'crowd,' then something more exclusive. He takes Charles to visit Nanny Hawkins (Rita Davies, given a minute) and Ryder is awestruck by Brideshead Castle, but Sebastian bolts upon news that his mother will be arriving. Even in this brief visit, Charles has seen the rosary clutched in Nanny's hands, the painting of Madonna and child which Sebastian abhors and the family chapel. When college breaks for summer, Charles gets an urgent message from Sebastian, claiming extensive injuries (which turn out to be a broken little toe). Charles arrives at Brideshead and begins a bacchanalia with Sebastian, who dares to kiss him on the mouth. Lady Marchmain's arrival puts a damper on the wine consumption, but Sebastian has an out - his father, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon, "Open Range," "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"), has invited him to Venice, where he lives with his Italian mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi, "White Mischief," "Emma"). Lady Marchmain acquiesces, but asks Charles to accompany him to keep an eye on him. It's Sebastian, however, who gets an eyeful when he sees Charles kissing his sister beneath a canal bridge. Sebastian is undone and Lady Marchmain is determined to marry off Julia to a Catholic. "Brideshead Revisited" depicts a family broken apart by its faith, and yet each member who sins seeks redemption. Through Charles's eyes, Lady Marchmain is a cruel control freak, her expatriated husband a comrade in arms and her two middle children (elder Bridley is depicted as stiff and humorless while youngest Cordelia is barely given mention) free spirits trying to break from her grasp, but Charles's youthful impressions are recast years later when alcoholism, sickness and death descend upon the Flytes. As Sebastian's former flame Anthony Blanche (Joseph Beattie, "Velvet Goldmine") tells him, he thought it was Charles who was the lamb being led to slaughter, but it turned out to be he who preyed upon the rich siblings, an observation that quite startles Charles with its sudden revelation. The film's last scene, in which Brideshead is revisited, depicts Charles achieving, if not a state of grace, able to truly pay respects. It is a jolt to see Emma Thompson, so recently playing brides in British period pieces, suddenly assuming the mantle of the matriarch. The actress is, of course, a superb Lady Marchmain, playing both the figure Charles sees and the touching, more tragic figure the audience recognizes. Equally good is Gambon, seeming to side with Ryder's sensibilities while seeing the lacking spirituality. Of the young cast, Ben Whishaw once again impresses, his Sebastian the soul of the film. Goode is merely good as Ryder and his scenes with Atwell lack sizzle, keeping the film from packing the real emotional punch it should have. As the film fails to flesh out supporting players, its supporting players fail to make much of an impression. Jonathan Cake ("First Knight") is broad as the American gold digger Rex Mottram, who marries Julia, and Anna Madeley ("In Bruges") is pinched as Ryder's barely there wife Celia. Scacchi is very good as the Italian who practices guilt-free Catholicism and dispenses wise advice. The film has all the appropriate period flourishes in production design, costume, makeup and hair. It is a stately piece of work that hits most of its marks, a decent adaptation, but alas nothing more.