Homosexuality, Catholicism and forbidden love. These are the themes running through the veins of Brideshead Revisited, a film adapted from the novel of the same name by Evelyn Waugh. Directed by Julian Jarrold of Becoming Jane (2007) fame, the film tells of Charles Ryder’s (played by Matthew Goode) journey as he struggles with the social and religious aspects of the aristocratic age.
Set in the era of gray flannel suits, steam trains and pre-war automobiles, Brideshead Revisited is filled with lush scenery of the English countryside, breathtaking takes of the “City of Water”, Venice, and magnificent shots of the sprawling grounds of Castle Howard, where the bulk of the movie is filmed in.
Upon entering Lincoln College, Charles finds himself lonely and foreign, till he discovers a friend in Lord Sebastian Flyte (played by Ben Whishaw). Charles is quiet and unassuming, while Sebastian is straightforward and popular, and the 2 friends find themselves being drawn to one another unknowingly.
Curious about Sebastian’s family as he never had one, Charles agrees readily when Sebastian suggests they head over to Brideshead, his family’s luxurious estate. It is here, over much wine where the friendship between Charles and Sebastian blossoms, evolving into a homosexual relationship.
At the same time, Charles delves deeper into the religion of Sebastian’s family-Catholicism-through the strict religious hold that Lady Marchmain (played by Emma Thompson) has over her children.
When Charles, Sebastian and Sebastian’s sister, Julia (played by Hayley Atwell) visit Venice, home to Lord Marchmian (played by Michael Gamban) and his mistress, Charles gets to bond further with Julia, whose mysterious personality pulls him closer to her. She is fond of saying one thing but meaning another, and it’s in understanding this that Charles falls deeper in love.
Charles shares a passionate kiss with Julia one night after a carnival. Little did they know, Sebastian had stumbled upon their little rendezvous. Betrayed and let down, Sebastian distances himself from Charles.
Although the budding relationship between Charles and Julia is visible to all, Lady Marchmain refuses to allow him to marry Julia, citing reasons of religious differences, as Julia is a staunch Catholic, while Charles is an atheist.
Meanwhile, Sebastian turns to alcohol to drown his sorrows and worries, while Julia is married off to a Catholic of similar social status.
The scene then fast forwards 4 years ahead, where we see Sebastian, shaved bald and stripped of his flamboyance, living in a monastery, riddled with health problems. Charles has progressed from an amateur artist to a professional one, his paintings sought by collectors all around the world.
Despite the fact that Charles is married, his heart still pines for Julia. In a stroke of luck one can only describe as fate, Charles sees Julia on a ship he is on, and pursues her relentlessly. The lovebirds recognise that one can’t do without the other and Julia decides to leave her husband.
Julian Jarrold then throws in an unexpected twist at this point in time, brilliantly highlighting the theme of Catholicism in one particular death scene.
Each character is strong in its entirety, with every member of the cast portraying their roles in its most raw form. This UrbanWire reviewer felt that the 2 notably best performances though, were by Ben Whishaw (who played Sebastian) and Emma Thompson (Lady Marchmain).
Whishaw is resplendent in his role as Sebastian, flamboyant and flashy at one moment, sullen and reproachful at another. He conveys Sebastian’s emotions so convincingly, you can’t help but grin at the times when he is showy, and share his despair at other times. Little wonder then, that Ben Whishaw has won 2 awards, one for “Most Promising Newcomer” at the British Independent Film Awards 2001, and another for “Best Actor” at the Sochi International Film Festival 2001 for his role in the award-winning film My Brother Tom.
The other face to watch belongs to that of Emma Thompson. Veteran Thompson has won 2 Oscars and 2 Golden Globes, not counting other numerous awards, since venturing into acting 25 years ago. In Brideshead Revisited, she made UrbanWire break out in silent applause at the way she portrayed her role perfectly: highly satirical, sarcastic, and very bitter.
Although Brideshead Revisited is essentially a love story, don’t go in expecting the usual as it looks at love on many different levels. Family love, homosexual love, forbidden love, religious love. These are but a few of the kinds of love broached in the film.
Brideshead Revisited is definitely not a forgettable film. The multiple themes and meanings approached by Julian Jarrold in his take on one of the greatest work of fiction ever will leave you pondering even after you step out of the theatre.
It is a pity, however, that Brideshead Revisited watered down much of the theme of Catholicism that was present in the novel, choosing to focus instead on the relationships between each character.
UrbanWire gives Brideshead Revisited 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Rating: M18 (some mature content)
Runtime: 135 min
Director: Julian Jarrold
Cast: Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon
Date of Release: Oct 30
(Credits: Movie stills courtesy of Festive Films)