Fans of early-20th century costume drama should know exactly what to expect from Brideshead Revisited, as Julian Jarrold's take on Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel contributes nothing new to the genre or storyline. It's no wonder, since Waugh's literature inspired most of those classic country-estate dramas in the first place. Sure, Brideshead takes advantage of beautiful locations and strong performances, but on the whole it is a fairly hollow affair.
The film follows the life of Charles Ryder, a middle-class Londoner, who has made his way to Oxford to study history, but his true ambition is to be a painter. He quickly befriends the hard-partying young Lord Sebastian Flyte, who invites him to his family's country estate, the titular Brideshead. At Brideshead, Charles falls hopelessly in love with Sebastian's sister, Julia, while delicately enduring Sebastian's longing for him. The story takes us around to different parts of the world, as Charles, a fervent atheist, yearns for Julia, whose family's strict Catholic upbringing precludes her from marrying him.
Throughout the movie, there is a scathingly anti-Catholic undercurrent in Brideshead, which may have stronger resonance with today's viewers. The film deals not only with the irreconcilable differences between the faithful and atheists, but also the Church's view of homosexuality and sin. The finger of blame is leveled squarely upon the Church and its chief enforcer in the film, Lady Marchmain (Thompson). The Church's intolerance of homosexuality is the root of Sebastian's depression and alcoholism. It is the wedge that drove Lord Marchmain (Gambon) away from his wife and into the arms of a mistress in Venice. Most significant to this story, it is the mightiest obstacle to Charles and Julia's happiness together. There is little redemption to be found for the Church in this film, and it is in this theme that the film does its best work in carrying on the message of Waugh's novel.
But this theme isn't enough to save the film. Essentially, a filmmaker must work hard to make a movie like Brideshead Revisited relevant to a contemporary audience or else it becomes another nostalgic piece. Chronicling the worries and "struggles" of British aristocrats between the wars seem so trivial when cast against the stark reality of our century and all of its collected horrors. There is a timelessness to this story of love versus duty to one's family and the struggle of faith versus atheism. However, these struggles exist conceptually more than anything else, since the shallow realization of some of the central characters in this theatrical release make it difficult to empathize with their struggles.
Matthew Goode is wonderfully understated as Ryder, yet his performance is forceful enough to stand up to wonderful supporting turns by Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon, who portray separated parents to the Flyte children. The other actors do their roles justice, but they just don't have anything terribly intriguing to work with. Ben Whishaw plays Lord Flyte, who comes across in this adaptation as a fairly flat, gay aristocrat who sloshes his way from one binge to the next. Despite his frequently amusing debauchery, Sebastian never develops into an engrossing character in the film. Meanwhile, Ryder's love interest Julia is portrayed by Hayley Atwell, who alternately pouts and seduces, but rarely elicits much sympathy or connection. Though one cannot expect a film adaptation of a literary work to have the same depth of character development as its source material, it is still disappointing to see these two characters never become as fully fleshed-out as Charles or their parents.
Brideshead Revisited is not a bad film, but it is a decidedly faulty adaptation. It introduces us to controversy in places, but does not do a satisfactory job in introducing us fully to the characters who will bear these burdens. In many ways, the film just feels like a painting kept behind a thick pane of glass: it's there to be watched and admired by some, but overall the connections with the viewer are obscured.