January 24, 2009

"Brideshead Revisited"

Here's my review from The American Conservative of last summer's "Brideshead Revisited," now out on DVD:

No American did more to resuscitate Evelyn Waugh's reputation than the late William F. Buckley. By Waugh's death in Mod 1966, the reactionary Catholic novelist's standing had fallen almost as low as Jay McInerney's is today, yet Buckley's devotion introduced Waugh to a new generation. In Waugh's 1982 apotheosis, the monumental 13-episode Brideshead Revisited miniseries, Buckley was rightly hired to host the show on PBS.

Hence, the news that the new movie adaptation of Brideshead, Waugh's magenta-hued 1945 saga about a decadent Catholic noble family, would star the English actor Matthew Goode was intriguing. Goode (who played an amusing aristocrat in Woody Allen's "Match Point") resembles a young Buckley, especially in his express elevator eyebrows. His patrician magnetism made him a natural to play Sebastian Flyte, the charming toff who beguiles Charles Ryder, an ambitious bourgeois aesthete, when they meet at Oxford in 1923.

After Sebastian drinks himself into a monastery, Ryder's "romantic friendship" with Sebastian is followed by a mature love affair with Sebastian's sister Julia. She's unhappily married to the crass politician Rex Mottram (whom Waugh modeled on Winston Churchill's right hand man, Brendan Bracken). Rex is willing to give her a divorce, but Julia's vestigial Catholicism raises qualms in her about remarriage.

Unfortunately, the new "Brideshead Revisited" film casts Goode as the narrator, Charles Ryder, the reticent interloper dazed by the refinement of the Flyte family and their stately home Brideshead (played once again by the stupendous Castle Howard in North Yorkshire), leaving Goode few occasions to deploy his Buckleyesque facial gymnastics.

Despite that missed opportunity, the new "Brideshead Revisited" is a perfectly competent film for grown-ups, superior to last year's similar exercise in English upper crust period porn, the Best Picture nominee "Atonement."

"Atonement" invited us to indulge in the modern metasnobbery, to publicly tut-tut about the horrors of the English class system while privately wallowing in the visual splendor it created. In contrast, Waugh was an old-fashioned snob, whose only objection to class was that he should have been born into the very highest one.

While the 2008 "Brideshead Revisited" is certainly tasteful and efficient, those are just about the last words you'd associate with Waugh's grand but sprawling bestseller, half-masterpiece, half-embarrassment. Waugh had achieved near-perfection in Scoop, his 1938 satirical novel. In the more melodramatic Brideshead, however, he wore his heart on his sleeve ("The languor of Youth -- how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost!"), revealing the easily bruised soul over which he had grown his carapace of malicious wit.

The new "Brideshead" is thus a good film, but not good Waugh. That's hardly surprising -- despite the enormous sums Hollywood invests in major novels by major novelists (in 1946, MGM paid Waugh $140,000 for Brideshead, but never made the film), they inevitably fail to translate fully to the screen. There's simply too much there.

It's unfortunate for the movies that the short story has almost died as an art form. As John Huston's 1975 adaptation of Kipling's short story The Man Who Would Be King demonstrated, it's often more satisfying for all concerned to expand a 20 page tale than to eviscerate a 350 page novel.

In contrast, the old miniseries certainly did Waugh justice by running an outlandish 659 minutes. In truth, that's too long; I endured the first two hours, then gave up due to the glacial pacing. As superb as the acting was, the miniseries was a relic from the Shogun era, before the universality of remote controls sapped audiences' patience. (Perhaps the producers of the new film should have simply edited the eleven-hour classic version down to 135 minutes.)

The modest attempts to modernize this 2008 Brideshead just sap the delirious momentum of the book. For example, the screenwriters concoct a scene in which Rex sells Julia to Charles in return for two paintings, as if she's his possession, causing Julia to flare up with feminist resentment. In the book, though, Julia despises Rex not because he's an antiquated patriarch, but because he's a blasé modern husband untroubled by her infidelity.

Co-screenwriter Andrew Davies, age 71, has implied that he felt ill at ease over Brideshead's Catholicism, with all that outdated distaste for divorce: why shouldn't Julia marry Charles once they've both shed their spouses? Yet, attitudes have changed once again, necessitating that the new film delete Charles's two children by his first wife to keep the adulterer a sympathetic character for today's younger audiences.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual content.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

9 comments:

anony-mouse said...

I know people (well at least Wikipedia) say that Mottram was based on Bracken, but Beaverbrook matches him better.

Beaverbrook, like Mottram, was a Canadian (and a former employer of Waugh's).

By contrast Mottram is ignorant of Catholic ways, an unlikely description of Bracken who was born and raised a Catholic.

BTW I liked the Mottram and Bridey characters.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read "Brideshead Revisited", but I've read Waugh's "Decline and Fall", "Vile Bodies", "Scoop" and "Black Mischief". All four were incredibly funny and smart. I recommend them highly. The last two treat the same theme (black self-rule) in a mind-bogglingly politically incorrect manner. While reading them I often wandered how such works could be re-printed in our times.

I've heard before that Waugh turned sentimental in "Brideshead Revisited". He was anything but in his earlier novels. They are full of dry wit, elegance, snobbery and insight. The snobbery was strictly heterosexual and was a part of his comedic genius, so it doesn't grate.

Steve Sailer said...

I always thought Lord Copper in "Scoop" was based on Lord Beaverbrook?

Anonymous said...

it's often more satisfying for all concerned to expand a 20 page [short story] than to eviscerate a 350 page novel.

Hear, hear!

Many of the great movies began life as short stories, including one of my old favorites, "Rear Window."

The assault on plot by the literary tastemakers in New York in the middle of the XXth Century resulted in an open sewer of "mood pieces" and the kind of junk that's published in magazines today. Unfilmable. Undisgestible. And unreadable.

Henry Canaday said...

I fell out of the later episodes of the TV Brideshead not because the pace was slow, but because that which was being paced, the story, was either boring or unreal. The picture of the ordinary unhappy first marriage of Ryder bored me, I think, because it bored the author. And the adult romance with Julia seemed fake even to the first readers of the novel. It was Waugh wearing his religion, not his heart, on his sleeve. (Only the caricature or Mottram/Bracken seems to have interested Waugh much.)

The early episodes of Brideshead were, I think, the most sincere things Waugh ever wrote. Scoop was perfect of its kind, hilarious, beautifully-constructed nastiness. But true memories, even if they make you squirm, are better than clever carapaces. Waugh's memory of his university and immediate post-university days was fascinating because of the pain. No one minds reading the Portrait of the Artist as a young bleeding man. Readers love bloodshed, and there was plenty of emotional blood in those early episodes. I didn't know whether to run out of the room laughing or screaming during some of those early scenes.

Dutch Boy said...

Waugh's first wife cuckolded him and the imprint of that experience is all over Brideshead Revisited.

Steve Sailer said...

As usual, I defer to Henry Canaday's superior judgment.

Anonymous said...

The first half of Brideshead Revisited was a rivetting, witty delight to the senses. Evocative of another era. Quite charming.

The second half was a long drawn-out slog about the apparent instrinsic benefits of adhering to the Catholic faith.

Anonymous said...

Catholicism is the entire point of Brideshead - that' why it so awesome.