Monday, 27 August 2012

Brideshead Revisited (2008)

I'm not sure if it has been on terrestrial television before, but we finally saw Brideshead Revisited, Julian Jarrold's 2008 film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

If you're English and of a certain age, it's bound to attract comparison with the classic and much more detailed 1981 TV serial of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons. I enjoyed this on re-watching it recently, and - from distant recollection of having read the book decades ago - I think it retained a great deal of the subtlety of the novel. The 2008 adaptation is necessarily highly condensed, but it was nevertheless a highly polished version, with Matthew Goode playing Ryder creditably.

What is does do, in contrast to the earlier version, is make it far more overt that Ryder not only wishes to be part of the aristocratic lifestyle of the Marchmain family, but also actively covets the stately home Brideshead itself. It was also interesting to see that the blurb for the trailer (above) ...
Adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel, focusing on the doomed love affair between Charles and Julia Flyte and how Catholicism destroys their relationship and their families.
... specifically spins it as a critique of the influence of Catholicism on the characters.

At the time of publication, however, the novel was perceived as a Catholic apologia. Waugh, a Catholic convert, described the novel as being about "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". In those terms, the Marchmain family is dysfunctional and decadent, but its members are ultimately redeemed by religiously-motivated decisions that lead them variously to good works, deathbed conversion, and rejecting relationships unacceptable within their religious framework.

But I don't think the 2008 film is saying anything wildly new. That always has been a possible alternative interpretation of the novel, and I recall thinking the same on reading the book and seeing the 1981 adaptation. The Marchmains' dysfunction is in being unable to break the family programming - it's rather irrelevant that it's Catholicism - that damages their ability to relate to people outside the framework of a stultifying ruleset. Sebastian is a self-destructive alcoholic because of the programmed guilt that prevents him coming to terms with his homosexuality in a straightforward way (in contrast with Blanche, who ultimately proves to be the most perceptive and self-aware character in the book). The same programmed guilt makes Julia break off a perfectly workable relationship with Ryder.

This ought to make the outcome readable as a tragedy, but for some reason it finally comes across as merely irritating, when Ryder accepts Julia's mutually destructive decision as valid, and, on revisiting Brideshead years later as a "homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless" Army officer, gets a glimmering of faith himself.

- Ray

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