With its blend of wistful nostalgia for and biting satire of bygone English nobility, Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus Brideshead Revisited is among the most celebrated English novels — more despite than because of its preoccupation with Catholicism, for which it ranks also among the most celebrated Catholic novels. Among fans of both sorts it is also much beloved as a 1981 British miniseries in eleven parts.
A feature adaptation of an acclaimed novel that has already been successfully and faithfully adapted as a miniseries is a perilous proposition for a filmmaker. Every omission, conflation and revision invites unfavorable comparisons to the longer retelling, as Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice had to contend with the 1995 BBC miniseries.
My view is that there’s always room for a retelling meant to be watched in one sitting, however abridged it must be. Character arcs must be abbreviated, some characters may get short shrift and wealth of incident and detail must be sacrificed. But key characterizations and incidents may stand out with new clarity and persuasiveness, and the spirit of the original may be well honored, if it’s done right.
Brideshead Revisited, directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) from a screenplay by Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland) and Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones’s Diary), gets a few things right. The allure of the opulent elegance of Brideshead (York’s Castle Howard, as in the miniseries) for middle-class artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, Match Point), and in particular the enigmatic appeal of Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell), for instance. The dry humor of Charles’s strained relationship with his eccentric father, for another.
Even the portrayal of the Flytes’ dysfunctional Catholicism isn’t without merit. Sebastian’s line “I’m not a heathen, I’m a sinner,” is not from the book (“half-heathens” is how Waugh’s Sebastian describes himself and his sister Julia), but I think Waugh might have approved.
Yet this Brideshead Revisited ultimately subverts Waugh’s subtlest and most subversive achievement: It offers all the foibles and puzzlement of the Flytes’ religious world, while all but obliterating the threads of grace running through their lives.
A Catholic convert and a fierce critic of modernity writing for a historically anti-Catholic secular culture, Waugh cannily offers an agnostic point of view — that of protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder — and, in the eccentric, extravagant Flytes of Brideshead, a portrait of a decadent, rococo Catholicism significantly confirming the prejudices of his age.
Readers who would be on their guard and skeptical of a portrayal of virtuous, sympathetic heroes of Catholic faith are drawn in by Waugh’s unsparing warts-and-all candor and critical outside perspective. Although Lady Marchmain reads aloud from The Wisdom of Father Brown, Waugh offers no Chestertonian priest with cherubic face and devastating theological, philosophical and psychological insights to overturn our preconceptions.
What Waugh does, almost imperceptibly, is to turn the tables on Charles, who slowly comes face to face with his own foibles and shortcomings, and begins to realize that for all their deficiencies there is something human and wholesome about the Flytes’ religiosity — something more to Catholicism and Catholics than guilt and superstition and ignorance. Fragile and broken as they are, these jars of clay hold a treasure after all.
The big-screen Brideshead is all jars of clay, little or no treasure. In fact, the so-called treasure turns out to be at the root of all their troubles. Thus the filmmakers include Sebastian’s conflicted guilt over his homosexual inclinations, but not his childlike affirmations of faith and declarations of the loveliness of the Catholic story. We get Julia’s outrage over the comment from Bridey (Ed Stoppard) about living in sin, but not her wish to have her own child brought up Catholic, even if the faith hasn’t done her much good. Young Cordelia’s chatter about buying an African god-daughter is retained, but her insightful commentary on the various characters’ spiritual trajectories is omitted.
Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) is portrayed as manipulative and ruthless, which is fair, but also chilly and unfeeling, which is not. It’s impossible to imagine this Lady Marchmain expressing acceptance of her son’s drinking and concern only for his unhappiness. Where her husband’s mistress Cara in the book expresses sympathy for Lady Marchmain, calling her “a good and simple woman” who has “done nothing except be loved by someone who was not grown-up,” the film’s Cara (Greta Scacchi) has only condemnation for how she has “suffocated” her family and ruined their lives.
Catholic screenwriting maven and blogger Barbara Nicolosi, in a scathing blog post, raises on a key issue: Where is the compelling, elusive “charm” of the Flytes, of which so much is made in the book? Where is the complexity, the sympathy for or insight into these flawed but human characters? What is Charles supposed to see in them, other than Julia’s beauty and the splendor of Brideshead itself?
For that matter, where is the complexity of Charles, the machinations beneath the diffident, deferential exterior? What do the Flytes see in him? The film includes a line about his appetites devouring the family among whom he initially seemed a sheep among wolves, but events on the screen offer little warrant for this interpretation. As played by Goode, Charles seems simply blandly forthright and decent, with none of the manipulative cunning of his Match Point costar Jonathan Rhys Meyers in that film, for instance. Charles cites “guilt” as his dominant psychological state, but the filmmakers don’t seem to know what he’s guilty of.
Why is Charles now a confirmed atheist, who, when Lady Marchmain suggests “agnostic” as a preferrable option, insists on “atheist”? This is a flat reversal of the book, where Sebastian announces Charles as an “atheist” and Charles clarifies his status as “agnostic.” As this revision suggests, the film’s general subversion of Waugh’s religious point of view seems to be a deliberate decision of the filmmakers.
Thus, for instance, we are twice told that Catholicism allows you to do what you like and then go to confession — a canard not found in the novel. Yet the story’s homosexual themes have been carefully expunged of the connection in Waugh to affective immaturity. (In the novel, Cara suggests that a boy who is not yet ready to love a girl may love another boy with “a kind of love that comes to children before they know its meaning,” and pointedly notes that Sebastian with his teddy-bear is “in love with his childhood.” And when Julia asks Charles if he loved Sebastian, Charles replies, “Oh yes. He was the forerunner.”)
Waugh wrote that Brideshead “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.” Grace may not be totally missing from the film version — the ending isn’t wholly betrayed — but however real it may be for the characters, there’s no sense that it feels real to the filmmakers, or the audience. It’s as if Waugh’s story has been filtered through the spiritual blindness of young Charles. The movie sees, but it doesn’t understand.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.