In the first episode of the remarkable Brideshead Revisited, a fresh young student at Oxford (Jeremy Irons) is warned by his cousin not to take downstairs rooms, especially not off the common square. One night, as he studies with other serious young students, a group of carousing drunks surge noisily in the square. One handsome young man leans in the open window, catches Ryder’s eye and vomits on the floor. The next day, Ryder is charmed with a room filled with flowers and an invitation to lunch (on plover’s eggs) by the young and charismatic Lord Sebastian Flyte, an eccentric who carries with him his teddy bear. So begins a journey of Evelyn Waugh’s translation to film one of his major novels, and launches a young Jeremy Irons on one of his best roles.
When Acorn Media brought out more of the Waugh Collection with Handful of Dust and Scoop, I thought Handful with Kristin Scott Thomas and James Wilby a first rate adaptation — the story of a man who was entirely too properly British to say no to his unfaithful wife, nor to anyone else, and I realized a major theme in both Handful and Brideshead. Who’s in control? Society and its rules of propriety? God and his rules of obligation? And the important question in both: Does man have any true control over his own destiny? Of the whole Waugh Collection, the finest to me is still the 11-episode 1981 award-winning masterpiece Brideshead Revisited. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it, consider it a must for your film library.
Brideshead takes you back to a period between the First and Second World War and a look into the end of an era, a tragic/comic romantic love / unlove story and the perils / transcendent joy of religious passion — the odyssey of a young man who falls in love with a rich and titled family dominated by conservative Catholicism which permeates every corner of this story.
But first a warning: 1981 is not 2010. We move faster. We Face and Tweet; we walk the streets attached to a talking wire and, oblivious of the world immediate, we speak into space. We are impatient if our DSL takes two seconds too long. Brideshead takes its time. Slows you down. Leads you slowly by the hand through time and space. Immerses you in lush detail. Nothing blows up; nothing happens quickly. It is a slow, luxurious history lesson which leaves you with unforgettable scenes and bits of “life lessons.”
Two scenes particularly have stayed with me. In one, the domineering, controlling and utterly charming mother (Claire Bloom) sits in one of the mansion’s gorgeously furnished rooms and reads to her family from a book about Father Brown. This priest says that he has his fishhook into his people, he lets out the line so they can roam and stray the world over, but with a twitch of his thumb, he can tug the line and have them back. For many of us who believe in self-determination, those childhood lines and their hidden obligations still exist and tug us back.
Ryder’s early affair with Sebastian, which never claims to be a “gay” relationship, mirrors the idea of the period — that homosexuality is a passing phrase, that all boys go through it in their early years and then grow out when they discover women. One of the best roles goes to Anthony Blanche (Nicholas Grade) who gives an incomparable performance as the lisping, always campy Anthony who swishes and rolls up his eyes at his disdain of the ordinary world.
Charles Ryder loves his friend, meets his devastating and intriguing and beguiling family, goes off to Italy to meet the father, separates from Sebastian who is torn between his allegiance to family and total rejection of both family and religion, and descends into a maze of alcohol. There are marvelous scenes of the family’s fox hunt and Sebastian’s drunken afternoon at the local pub. Ryder becomes an artist, but an artist who paints cold, lifeless buildings. His love affair with the older daughter, the war itself, the class war, his final descent into unhappiness... all this may sound dry perhaps, but it’s not. It’s one of the true explorations in film of love itself: homosexual, sexual, and religious.
Recently, a review in Vanity Fair of a book by Paula Byrne discloses that the novel was, to a great extent, autobiographical and that the Marchmain family was actually the Lygon family and the house their mansion Madresfield (136 rooms). Hugh Lygon was the Sebastian who actually did carry the teddy bear and drank his way through Oxford.
Our worlds of privilege today do not have the elegance and style of Brideshead. Today, privilege is money and power, collecting art for its monetary value, power in politics — none of the opulence of the ruling class that died with the coming of the Second World War. It’s worth a historic look in.
Ryder is played, of course, by Jeremy Irons, who has gone on to become a major figure in American film. Not so with Anthony Andrews, who played Sebastian from charming teddy-bear to the devastation of a dying alcoholic. (Shades of martyrdom.) Andrews appears seldom over here but remains a major figure in Britain’s stage and film. And for a classic role of a father who manages not to love his son but puts on a wonderful show, John Gielgud’s bit is unforgettable.
It’s a must-watch and a must-think-over, with scenes that stay for a long, long while.
Why We Like It: deep exploration of layered characters, lush period setting, a great literary adaptation