directed by Julian Jarrold
written by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock
starring Emma Thompson, Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell, Ben Whishaw, Patrick Malahide, Felicity Jones, Michael Gambon, Jonathan Cake, Ed Stoppard, Geoffrey Wilkinson
It’s the tale of two kisses. In a foreboding, brutally oppressive Brideshead, salacious intrigue boils between a solid, cold Matriarch, her two adult children, and a stranger who has stumbled frightfully into a world to which he does not effectively belong.
Charles Ryder (Goode) is a painter who has spent three years in the jungle painting various scenes that are selling well. He is aboard a massive liner and is being celebrated and cozied up to by potential patrons. He sees a girl and immediately follows her. We don’t know her name only that he is desperate to find her. Finally he catches her and she merely greets him before the scene ends. The film flashes back ten years and Charles is studying at Oxford. He is readying his room when a young man appears in the door way and promptly vomits. Charles rather cheerfully cleans up the mess and on the next day there is a note and flowers from one Sebastian Flyte (Whishaw) inviting him to dinner. He meets Sebastian and the two quickly form an intimate friendship that becomes quite serious. Sebastian is a homosexual, rather a libertine who takes his pleasures as he finds him and doesn’t much take actualities into consideration. He is flippant, casual to the point of distraction, and deceptively polite. Charles is equally smitten and their intimacy gradually creeps toward an inevitability. This comes in the form of a chaste kiss that is followed immediately by crashing silence. It is not spoken of again and seems to do nothing to cool each boy’s ardor for the other. Yet, an unspoken elegance passes between them and they remain just as they were–diligent in each other’s company and painfully aware of the intensity that has grown between them.
Soon after making Charles’s acquaintance, Sebastian invites him to Brideshead to meet his grandmother. This is the first time we are confronted with the magisterial opulence of the palatial home that appears more fit for royalty. The place is boarded up because the family is elsewhere and it is clear that Charles is quietly taking in the splendor of what he sees before him. On the way out a car passes them and Charles notices a girl in the back seat that Sebastian informs him is his sister Julia (Atwell). Later on Charles is at home with his father Edward (Malahide) when he receives a notice saying that Sebastian is gravely ill. He agrees to visit his friend and is picked up at the train station by Julia.. This begins his proper instruction into the language of luxury and the necessity of controlled emotion.
The film is as regal as the Matriarch of the family, Lady Marchmain (Thompson), a grave, intense woman whose Catholic faith consumes the entire film and permeates every scene, every shot, every gesture. This is a rare film that is entrenched in a strict religious aesthetic although the film itself is not particularly religious. There is a heaviness and a seriousness to everything that takes place at Brideshead. This is in sharp contrast to the carefree afternoons Sebastian and Charles spend together on their own, just them against the world. Here there is room for experimentation and a rogue posture that is not bound by the tyranny of tradition and a specific, regulated order. Between the rigid expectations of Oxford and the stark practicalities of Brideshead, Charles and Sebastian steal whatever amusements from the day that are presented to them.
Tensions naturally flare when Julia, who heretofore has shown disdain for Charles, begins to see him in a different light. They begin spending time together, waiting for the right moment for their passions to ignite. The moment of reckoning arrives and they share a brief, passionate embrace but Julia quickly walks away. It proves to be the only such encounter as Julia soon becomes engaged to Rex Mottram, an older man who is rich and most importantly Catholic. Lady Marchmain confronts Charles, as he is considering Julia, and instructs him to forgo any thoughts of marrying her. One of the most significant aspects of this film is the way that Lady Marchmain controls the lives of her children. Her Catholic faith binds each child to her and she refuses to consider any other alternative. The chapel in the house is a legitimately sacred arena for Lady Marchmain to establish the specific tone of her rule. She cannot be questioned. She demands that Julia marry a Catholic so that is what she does. Sebastian meanwhile loses ground and quickly becomes an alcoholic who feels distant from his mother, Brideshead and all that it represents.
The film plays out like an emotional tug-of-war between Sebastian and Charles. Sebastian pitches a fit soon after he discovers Charles and Julia kissing. He shuns Charles and proceeds to nearly wreck himself. Their connection proves to be fragile and there are breakups and reunions that seem to tax each friend more aggressively at each turn. Meanwhile the specter of Julia hangs over Charles’s head. He is torn by his devotion to his friend and his newly discovered feelings for Julia. Yet he is banned from pursuing his longings by the terminal, unyielding force of nature that is Lady Marchmain.
Brideshead possesses a magical pull on Charles. He is brought in as something of an oddity and he never seems to lose this distinction. He is viewed initially by Lady Marchmain as an upstanding, honest young man upon which she could rely. She builds him up to be something of a proper role model for her son from which she is emotionally estranged perhaps due to Sebastian’s homosexual lifestyle. Brideshead tempts Charles although he never fully succumbs to its charms. He demands nothing of the family; he behaves as if he’s perfectly content either nestled in its bosom or far away back at home with his father. Charles is a straight arrow who lives according to a fairly consistent set of principles. He has a dignified air and carries him Self with an elevated state of grace. In this film Charles possesses a disarming charisma that stems entirely from his posture and ease of manners. He is simply a man who is innately capable of objectively quantifying the world around him and it is this quality that allows him to paint. All throughout the film we are made to note that Charles is essentially an artist and is able to see patterns and angles that others fail to see. Sebastian is incapable of such an exacting approach to phenomena. He is too lost in his sensual being to truly take the complicated steps toward viewing the world with any clarity. He succumbs to drink because he is unable to make a commitment to the actual world and prefers to while away his time in daydreams.
The performances in this film are uniformly excellent. Emma Thompson reveals the soft heartache of her character with a regulated, forceful comportment that defines her from her first appearance on screen. Lady Marchmain remains mysterious and unsullied by pathetic displays of emotion. Thompson raises her above the fray and she simply looks down upon her younglings with her claws sharpened and her fangs bared. Matthew Goode possesses a Cary Grant like quality that is much more than his mere physical resemblance to the departed actor. There is something in the way Goode moves that elicits memories of Grant’s easy strides and projected confidence. Goode is remarkably calm and presents a solid, grounded center. His manners are controlled and precise and he doesn’t waver as he progresses through the film. Ben Whishaw is languid and moody as Sebastian. It is clear through his gestures that he is a grand thinker. He surrounds himself with luxuries that ultimately deform him. Whishlaw gives us a character who is terminally lacking in conviction and has not established a point of view. Hayley Atwell plays Julia as a woman who senses something elsewhere; she anticipates a life outside the stifling walls of Brideshead but she can never fully extract herself from it. Atwell has an ease of being that embodies her character with delicate shuffle that often resonates with a shiver. Michael Gambon is only in the film for a few moments but his presence is felt throughout. His character is decadent, rather impish, and charged with a permanence that matches that of Brideshead. Gambon walks and acts like a man of stupendous privilege who once knew the machinations of the material world but who has now forgot.
Overall, this is an immensely ordered work of structures and measured meanings. Charles enters into a world of confined leisure through a pleasure seeker who knows nothing of the harsh realities of life as it is lived by most less fortunate people. Sebastian seems the type who bounds from one affair to another but in this film he holds on to Charles because Charles is not one who can be so easily discarded. The overarching necessity of Catholicism plays a dramatic role that equals that of the actors in this presentation. It is a character that demands allegiance from most of its characters and it’s telling that Charles the atheist would find himself here not quite able to enter into the codified world of supreme dedication to archaic peasant rites. Ultimately this is a film that speaks to longing and elevation. Order and tradition hold out against an onslaught of freethinking and battle-weary bemusement.