Plot summary (with spoilers): Captain Charles Ryder (played by Matthew Goode) is part of a platoon of soldiers using a sprawling estate called Brideshead as a barracks during World War II. It turns out that Charles is very familiar with the estate, as he spent most of his college years with the family that owns the place. As he gazes out upon the magnificent fountain in the courtyard, he remembers his previous visits to Brideshead.
The story then flashes back 10 years to when Charles is a student at Oxford. While there, he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) after Sebastian pukes through Charles’ open first floor window. The next day Sebastian sends flowers and a lunch invitation, which Charles accepts. Though Charles, an aspiring artist, is not like any of Sebastian’s other friends, Sebastian takes an instant liking to him. Soon, the two are inseparable, as they both enjoy indulging in wine and champagne.
Later, Sebastian takes Charles to Brideshead to see the house. But he doesn’t want Charles to meet his family because he thinks Charles is his friend and doesn’t want the others to interfere. Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that Charles will run into Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) and mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). These relationships are extremely complicated, as Sebastian has feelings for Charles, who in turn wavers in his affections between Sebastian and Julia. Meanwhile, Lady Marchmain wants Charles to use his influence to get Sebastian to stop drinking, which puts him in the middle between those two as well.
On top of all these issues, there’s religion to consider. Lady Marchmain is a devout Catholic and has raised her children to be the same. Sebastian doesn’t really care, but Julia seems filled with all kinds of guilt. As a result, she decides to marry a man named Rex Mottram (Jonathan Cake) just because he’s Catholic, while leaving the atheistic Charles behind.
The rest of the film then shows how Charles’ relationships with the various members of the Flyte family first deteriorate and then pick up again, and how sexuality and religion pervade everything.
My Reaction: Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels of all-time, and this is the second film version I’ve seen. The first was a TV miniseries, I believe, and wasn’t all that great. This one, while not perfect, was actually rather enjoyable. I think a big part of the reason is that Matthew Goode was excellent as Charles Ryder. This was an important casting decision because it obviously impacts the entire film, and I think the right choice was made.
I also thought Emma Thompson was fabulous as Lady Marchmain. She brought the right amount of dignity to the role, and also did a great job of showing the woman’s uncompromising religious beliefs. She knew she was losing Sebastian, but even then she couldn’t give in. And yet, she managed to exude motherly love throughout, and never led the viewer to question whether or not she truly cared for her son.
I had issues with Julia and Sebastian, however. I thought Julia was supposed to be beautiful, and while Hayley Atwell is certainly good-looking, she didn’t have that head-turning quality about her. (Also, she reminded me so much of Neve Campbell with that bob cut!) And Ben Whishaw was positively annoying as Sebastian. This isn’t an easy character to like even in the novel, but he’s far worse in the film, where none of his redeeming qualities shine through at all.
Why am I focusing on the characters here? Because this is essentially a character-driven story (and it’s hard for me to remember what was in the film vs. what was in the novel).
Overall, I thought this was a solid adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It captures the essential spirit of Waugh’s work, and though some parts have been cut or altered a bit, the main plot lines are absolutely recognizable. I give this version 4 stars out of 5.