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It must be hell to be a Catholic (and I thought Jewish guilt was bad). The film of "Brideshead Revisited," from Evelyn Waugh's classic novel, is the story of how a young man's life and love are defeated by what you might call the malign forces of English Catholicism. It is not that I am anti-Catholic; after all, my beloved mother-in-law, a believing Catholic, managed to baptize all my children in the bathroom one day. I learned of this later and thought it was just fine.
The film is told by the middle-class Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), from the day in the 1920s when he goes up to Oxford and meets a world populated by upper-class, homosexual public-school twits, including the gorgeous Sebastian, who introduces himself to Charles by throwing up on his window-sill (Ben Whishaw in a magnetic performance as a homosexual trapped by his mother's iron will and finding refuge in drink). Sebastian's mother, Emma Thompson, as the imperious Lady Marchmain of Brideshead, is in control of the lives of her son and her daughter Julia (Hayley Atwell, less well-defined here in the film). Charles is drawn to Sebastian (we never know if they consummate their relationship, though it is likely that they do) until he meets Julia, whose relationship with Charles Lady Marchmain refuses to countenance because Charles is an unrepentent atheist.
He is also an artist, and when he is invited to Brideshead, the family mansion - perhaps the most beautiful building in Britain - he also falls in love with it as well. But middle-class atheists are not likely to turn the heads of believing Catholics, though Charles and Julia make every effort to do so. In a sense the problem with the film of "Brideshead Revisited" is that Charles is more a reflection of the people he encounters than a personality in his own right. We are always on insecure ground when we try to capture him, and so we in the audience have too little to hold on to or identify with.
Sebastian and Julia's father (Michael Gambon) has long since left Brideshead and moved to Venice with his mistress, which is where Charles and Julia first exchange a kiss - in sight of Sebastian, unfortunately - and Sebastian's path ultimately leads him to a life of drugs and liquor in Morocco.
The story is told as a memory by Charles, who as an officer in the Second World War is posted back to Brideshead, now taken over by the army. The film was directed by Julian Jarrold, who has a wonderful feel for the era and its emblematic conventions of statuary, polished wood, interior lights, furnishings, cars, dances and dress; it is always sumptuous to look at, even if not totally enthralling.
8/8/08 <! new pasted review ends on line above>