Making notes in 1949 for a review of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited , George Orwell wrote that “Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be… while holding untenable opinions.” Which is a nice way of saying that Waugh, a world-class satirist of everyone from the rich down, was also a social-climbing snob, an anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer, a hater of modernity and by extension (as anyone knows who has read The Loved One, his handy evisceration of the California funeral business) all things American.
Not that this deterred the millions of Americans who wolfed down the British television adaptation of Brideshead when it aired on PBS in 1981. Cruising right past the novel’s crass Yank (disguised as a Canadian, but it was all the same to Waugh) who does business with the Nazis and sells his wife for a few paintings, just about every Anglophile I knew fell for the lovely country seat and its delicate-featured nobles dripping with diamonds, Catholic guilt and all. Personally, I never saw the point of stretching out this crisply written and none too long novel about England collapsing under the pressure of social change into a depressive 11-hour slog. A movie adaptation, even one passed through the pop filter of co-writer Andrew Davies, British TV’s designated gatekeeper of all properties literary to the masses, sounds like much more fun. And though I can imagine Waugh rolling his eyes at the very idea of Brideshead Revisited as “a heartbreaking romantic epic,” this remake is, often inadvertently, closer to the novel’s spirit than the sepulchral television series, albeit still not half as waggishly Waugh-ish as Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry’s delightfully naughty interpretation of Vile Bodies.
Adapted by Davies with Jeremy Brock, Brideshead isn’t much of a story. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a wan young student who comes from trade, is taken up at Oxford by the feverishly gay and increasingly alcoholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and soon finds himself caught up in Sebastian’s struggle with his intensely Catholic family. What it lacks in plot, however, is made up for in atmosphere and constant movement. As directed by Julian Jarrold (who already displayed impressive chops for jollying up the classics by bestowing a saucy love life on Jane Austen in Becoming Jane), Brideshead Revisited -revisited is a less gloomy affair than its predecessor, boasting better stately homes and gardens bathed in a warm chocolate glow, colorful trips abroad to Venice and Morocco, a marketably youthful cast, and broad winks at the novel’s repressed homosexual attraction between Charles and Sebastian. Nothing wrong with any of that—Waugh was an observant creature of the Jazz Age he deplored.
If the movie strives and fails to redirect the erotic flow to the heterosexual love between Charles Ryder and Sebastian’s sister, Julia Flyte, so, too, did Waugh, almost certainly a closeted homosexual inhibited by his conversion to Catholicism. As Julia, Hayley Atwell has none of TV-Julia Diana Quick’s tortured inner radiance, and when she and Charles finally rip off their silken evening clothes aboard a cruise liner, you want to laugh, or look away. In the end nothing that goes on in this youthful triangle proves as compelling as the great, sick love story between the teddy-clutching Sebastian (Whishaw is show-stoppingly queeny and heart-stoppingly vulnerable) and his mummy, an ice-floe nicely understated by Emma Thompson as a woman at once energized and doomed by her devotion to Catholic orthodoxy.
Waugh, whose cruelty to others in life and literature was legendary, was merciless in taking down this rigidly controlling woman and the son she destroys. But the truly malevolent power of Brideshead Revisited is his identification with what she stood for — a literal reading of the Vatican texts, the preservation of ancient tradition, and keeping her snooty class free of contamination by interlopers like Charles — and Waugh himself. Late in the day, Waugh turns a pitiless, accusing gaze on Charles’ unacknowledged motives for worming his way into the Marchmain household, and makes him over as a species of villain. You can’t read this switcheroo in the 21st-century without revulsion at the self-laceration with which Waugh punished himself for his own pent-up sexuality and his yearning to join a class he was not born into, and at his retreat into unbending religious orthodoxy. Still, though Brideshead Revisited the movie is far from deep, you have to admire the way it refrains from seizing the day for a post-modern lecture on the perils of fundamentalism, and confines itself to the disturbing vision of Evelyn Waugh.