Sir John Mortimer was beside himself over rumors that the feature-length adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited might ignore religion, homosexuality and Aloysius. (Mortimer wrote the screenplay for the 1981 TV miniseries adaptation.)
He needn’t have worried. All are evident in the film, and so is another Brideshead essential: charm.
Charm was stressed in the 1981 miniseries, which pushed me to push my parents to buy a VCR. The insouciant grace of old English aristocracy is more escapist for some people than anything with Wookiees or wizards. Oh, to have lived at a time when people would look brightly at you over their Chateau Suduiraut and say, “So … what form do your pleasures take?,” rather than mumble “’Ssup?’” and stare at their filthy Vans.
The wine and the line are both in this Brideshead, which will please lovers of the British period piece. Those impatient with Anglophilia may grow restless, but the film often visually enchants, and it’s chockablock with themes that transcend period: sexuality, class, religion, love, addiction and most of all, family.
Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) has charm – “such charm,” (as Waugh writes) – and this attracts Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), fellow Oxford freshman and budding artist. They begin what another character calls one of “these romantic English friendships,” and soon Charles is entangled with Sebastian’s family. The boys’ relationship is sweet and sort of low-key, but the subtlety works for the tale and the period. Change begins when Charles meets Sebastian’s sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell), who is amazingly like him; the casting of Whishaw and the spectacularly curvy Atwell was inspired, and superior to the TV version. Suppose you’re smitten with someone, then meet his or her sibling of the opposite sex and find yourself even more smitten? Gay or straight, it’s a great question to ask on the third drink.
Enter Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), the Catholic matriarch who invokes God so often he should be in the cast list. Her inflexibility, which she sincerely hopes to be helpful, drove Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) away and torments her two middle children, especially the self-medicating Sebastian. We’re stealthily reminded, though, that it’s not necessarily God, but those who brandish God as a means of control that you have to watch out for.
Aloysius, incidentally, is Sebastian’s ever-present teddy bear. Maybe you could make Brideshead without Aloysius. But why? He has such charm. And on the whole, this beautiful adaptation does as well.