There are countless stately piles in Britain. Only one, though, is Brideshead, the main setting for Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel: Castle Howard in Yorkshire, forever associated with this literary landmark thanks to the 1981 ITV drama filmed here. The connection will be made all the stronger by Julian Jarrold's movie, which again uses the residence to portray the ancestral home of the troubled Marchmain clan.
There, alas, the parallels end. Clocking in at just over two hours (compared to the mini-series' 11), Jarrold's take feels like a condensed, Reader's Digest-style distillation that only scratches the surface of Waugh's epic tale. Its fresh-faced stars
– Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw and Hayley Atwell – seem less imposing compared to small-screen predecessors Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick. Hell, even Whishaw's mangy teddy Aloysius is a poor substitute.
But even if you didn't see the original, this Miramax/BBC co-production will feel mildly underpowered when set against more recent period fare such as Atonement. It's partly down to the source material itself, a sprawling saga spanning three decades that uses middle-class Charles Ryder's (Goode) fascination with the self-destructive Sebastian Marchmain (Wishaw) and his alluring sister Julia (Atwell) to explore such meaty subjects as faith, theology and social stratification.
But more damaging is the way that writers Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies pussy-foot around key elements – Seb's
homosexuality, or the sexual desire that motors Charles and Julia's extramarital affair – that would surely have benefited from more explicit treatment. In fact, Goode and Atwell's solitary love scene is so chastely staged you wonder if they're doing it at all.
There are solid compensations: enjoyable turns from a silver-haired Emma Thompson as the domineering Lady Marchmain and Michael Gambon as her feckless, life-loving husband; episodes in Oxford and Venice that scream divine decadence and moneyed privilege; and, of course, Castle Howard itself, the perfect symbol for an English Eden. There's humour too, mostly from Patrick Malahide as Charles' disapproving dad, not to mention the contemporary resonance in having religious fundamentalism (shown in Thompson's unbending Catholicism) pivotal to the narrative.
But in the end it takes more than posh frocks and baroque interiors to make a film about the past relevant to the present. It takes ambition, audacity and even a touch of irreverence – qualities this Brideshead at times avoids so studiously you'd think Lady Marchmain herself was behind the camera.
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