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Brideshead Regurgitated

Brideshead Botched: the new film.
Just watched with a friend the recent (2008) film version of Brideshead Revisited, and I have to confess that everyone who had told me they would not watch it (because it was sure to be a travesty) was absolutely right.
It was absolutely terrible. First off, Sebastian falls in love with Julia right from the outset, and she is the main love interest on the holiday to Venice, so in no real sense is Sebastian 'the forerunner' as in the book and the orginal BBC series. But it is also part of a successful attempt to destroy any sense of development or direction in the character of Charles Ryder. The Charles we see at Oxford is exactly the same Charles we see at the end of the film. He does not become a Catholic and appears never really to have loved Sebastian at all. Even his passion for Julia is reduced to something animal, without any real depth of fellow-feeling.

Lord and Lady Marchmain both come across as incredibly vulgar, despite good acting from Michael Gambon, and the wonderful Emma Thompson. But these two are betrayed by their awful scripts. In the BBC version Sir Lawrence Oliver is curt with Father McKay the first time he comes to the death bed, but still charming; in the new version he is hysterically rude. And Emma Thompson throws Charles out of Brideshead in a nasty public scene which does not fit with her character at all.

Another oddity is that Charles is much better spoken that Julia and Sebastian.

Then, for some reason, Rex Mottram and Julia do actually contract a Catholic marriage, which Mottram offers to have annulled in exchange for three of Charles' paintings. Here annulment is used simply as a Catholic word for divorce, betraying a woeful ignorance of the theological subtleties of the plot. Bridie accuses Julia of living in sin before any such arrangement is shown to have started, and then Julia has her evening of hysteria by the fountain, bewailing the fact that she has been living in sin with Mottram (which, in this version, she has not been) and now wants to do the same with Charles. So none of her tortured guilt makes much sense.

Diana Quick, Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons:
the classic Brideshead.
Charles claims to be riddled with guilt at the end of the story, but it is not clear why. Ryder's own children are written completely out of the script, so although he has let down Cecilia, that is about it: he has not, as in the orginal, 'forfeited the right to see his own children'. Since he has not become a Catholic either, it is doubly odd that he should be feeling so guilty. There is simply some throw-away remark about having selfishly failed to see how closely the Marchmain family were tied to their religion. But it is completely unconvincing.

The three main contentions of the original story, to my mind, were that suffering has a meaning, that to have really loved another human being is the key to all wisdom and that God's love gives us freedom to roam to the ends of the world (in our sins), only to be hauled back into his merciful embrace, by a twitch on the thread. All three of these are completely written out of the story in the 2008 version.

In the original, the business of really having loved another human being brings redemption to many characters: Sebastian's platonic love for the disgusting and undeserving Kurt, and then for all the other patients in the hospital in Morocco, brings him a kind of peace at the end of his days; Charles' love for Sebastian, and later for Julia, help him to faith and to serenity in suffering; Julia's love for Sebastian which she sacrifices so that God will never quite abandon her at the end, is still the key to her redemption. And the love of the saintly Lady Marchmain for all of those around her, does, in the end, so it seems, assure the salvation of her entire family, so that she is ultimately vindicated as an influence for good.

In the new film Lady Marchmain, and the faith that she represents, are made to appear pathetic and ugly.

Lastly, and perhaps least importantly, the whole aspect of social comment (the General Strike, the end of an era, death of traditional values, new vulgarity of the middle classes, etc) is totally lost.

So, after getting all that off my chest, I just hope that this new version will fade somehow into obscurity, lest it succeed in sullying the memory of Evelyn Waugh for future generations.

I have, however, watched two great films about Roman Britain recently, and I'll talk about them next time.


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