Monday, 13 October 2008

Brideshead Revisited

If the youth of a large proportion of the audience at Brideshead Revisited at the Odeon Magdalen Street, Oxford, last Thursday night was anything to go by, Brideshead Revisited retains its hold on the imaginations of new Oxford undergraduates. In fact, most of the people on the streets that evening seemed to be freshers, crowding around the entrance to Po Na Na, striding down St Giles with varying levels of conviction and purpose. This, perhaps, was their night; but if they sought the Oxford of today in Brideshead Revisited, they would have been hard pushed to find it.

I mainly know Brideshead Revisited from Granada Television's interpretation nearly thirty years ago. When I went to an open day at the college I eventually attended, I was told by one of the JCR that Brideshead had been a cult in 1980s Oxford, to the extent that 'to Brideshead' was allegedly a verb, referring to people who carried teddy bears around with them and aped the supposed manners of the 1920s. The reality of this exaggeration by the turn of the 1990s, as far as I saw, was a short-lived student society called the Romantics, active about the time of my finals. Nevertheless, there was a moment of personal recognition in this film; there's a moment in the book where Charles Ryder recognises the arrival of Sebastian in his life as the opening of a door in a wall into an enchanted garden, and Sebastian's room in Christ Church seems to have been translated from Meadow Buildings to a familiar staircase in Tom Quad, though I make no claim for that particular student society whose then-president reigned from a set there to have brought me within reach of grace.

The film, from a screenplay by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, inevitably comes across as a précis of the book or (if you are like me) the longer television adaptation. Despite the protests of director Julian Jefford that he has never seen the Granada version, members of his crew probably have. The new film is haunted by the television series, with various performances echoing their television predecessors. Castle Howard is used again for Brideshead (abandoning a plan to use Chatsworth), and some of the scenes seem almost like alternate angle shots, as the same staircases and corridors used by Charles Sturridge are chosen again.

A lot of effort is put into incorporating details from the book here and there. Sebastian greets Charles on his first visit to Brideshead wearing pillar-box red pyjamas. There's some dialogue reconstruction in the early Oxford scenes, though Lunt the porter is only introduced to make the point that Oxford undergraduates did not 'do for themselves'; and there is nothing of the complaints about the women attending the ball. Cousin Jasper's denunication of Anglo-Catholics as "Sodomites" is however transferred to our first glimpse of Anthony Blanche's set on the river, one of many translations to celluloid (though there were several artefacts on the 'print' I saw which were distinctly electronic) which observes the letter but not the spirit of the book.

Advance publicity drew attention to the replacement of Charles Ryder's fascination with the Flyte family with a more conventional love triangle between Sebastian, Charles and Julia. Ben Whishaw's Sebastian is more fragile than Anthony Andrews's, though one of the failings of this increasingly staccato interpretation is that his decline seems all too rapid, and is sparked by the acceleration of Charles's love affair with Julia. In the book this begins on ship, in mid-Atlantic, a decade after Charles's friendship with Sebastian has ended; here, Julia comes to Venice with Sebastian and Charles, leading to a precipitate first kiss in a contrived carnival scene. The film has a less sophisticated understanding of sexuality than either the book or the Granada adaptation, and Sebastian seems far more motivated by the thwarting of his homosexual desires (here dealt with more explicitly than in the novel, though still tamely) than one feels he should. His final appearance in the narrative sees him in Morocco, a hybrid of ascetic holy man and AIDS patient, attended to by (and, we hear, later attending) bearded monks straight out of Renaissance painting.

Charles Ryder is played competently and often with subtlety by Matthew Goode, though he is working with debased material compared to Jeremy Irons. (Television folklore holds that although the Granada Brideshead was credited to John Mortimer, m'learned scriptwriter's work was abandoned at an early stage and largely used as a guide to scouting locations, with directors and cast improvising dialogue scene by scene based on the text of Waugh's book.) Problematically, Charles's longings here are far more material than they seem in the book; it's much easier to think at an early stage that he consciously longs to possess Brideshead with Julia, as Rex Mottram believes, particularly as here his involvement with Brideshead and the Flyte family is broken into three concentrated periods.

Davies and Brock, director Julian Jarrold, and their colleagues, impose a simplified and misunderstood version of the British class system on the film - and don't seem to realise that mentioning the word 'Catholic' at every opportunity, and as good as crash-zooming on rosary beads as Nanny Hawkins drops them, is no substitute for theology. Lord Brideshead, Sebastian's older brother, is turned into a hunting-shooting-fishing cliché rather than the unworldly and often ineffectual figure he seemed on television, and who apparently once aspired to the priesthood. Charles is a scion of a landed gentry family in the book, but there is no room for subtle gradations of social distinction here. The poor fellow is on an allowance less than a fifth of what he enjoys in the book; the aesthetic and spiritual wholeness he craves from Brideshead and the Flytes is trivialised. The character of Hooper in the book is a fellow-officer of Charles, though from an educational background that (in Charles's view) disregards the heroic and aspiration for something greater than the human world, in favour of a narrative of revolution-from-below. In the film he becomes a corporal, losing Waugh's points that the aristocratic culture of the Flytes had as good as been swept away before the start of the Second World War, and that without the heroic there was no hope of understanding the 'fairy-tale' of religion which revealed the spiritual universe hidden behind the curtain of the material world.

I tend to have a negative reading of the family dynamics within the Flyte family, and had seen their Catholicism as a symbol of their decline, acknowledging that this sat oddly with Waugh's own Catholicism; but it was explained to me after watching the film that I had probably missed Waugh's message that the Flytes can't reconcile being English aristocrats with being Catholic, both being different kinds of 'other' in early twentieth-century Britain. Having since finished the book I see that this is probably the case, but one wouldn't know it from the film. The story goes that Andrew Davies left the project because he wanted to make God the villain of the film, but if so it's still possible to discern his influence. The mania on the faces of the Flytes as the dying Lord Marchmain very determinedly crosses himself could be read by a sceptic as a possession by falsehood, while the conclusion of film doesn't seem very bothered with the state of Charles's faith, instead letting him snuff out his obsession with the Flytes in the chapel as if he was reconciling himself to the impending reign of the working men symbolised by Corporal Hooper.

So, this isn't Waugh, more off-the-shelf modernism; but it looks well enough and there are some striking images. Hayley Attwell as Julia photographs well, is well-draped, and goes nicely mad towards the end; Emma Thompson generally conveys the seriousness of Lady Marchmain's faith and her leadership of her family with attention, though I did wonder whether there were any better takes of her collapse at the Ryders' house, as this seemed overdone. Michael Gambon's Lord Marchmain is a more dangerous and effervescent performance than Laurence Olivier provided for Granada, and captured in more concentrated form the impression of Marchmain that Charles Ryder gradually builds up in the book. Nonetheless, this is a Brideshead made easy. While the new plot elements and the more conventional historical theme work, they flatten the story. Perhaps the affirmation of modernity I see in the final scene is more fitting for the clubbing, street-partying students of last Thursday night; but I'd still direct people to the DVD of the Granada series if they want a screen adaptation which does more justice to the novel.

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