I admit, I am such a fan of the original TV series Brideshead Revisited (1981) that when I heard of a “remake,” I sharpened my claws. Why remake a perfect product? What more could they do with the Evelyn Waugh novel of the British upper class and the friendship of two young men – the tragic Sebastian and his friend Charles, who ultimately was unable to save him…a story of privilege and obligation, of religious absolutism…starting in the ’20s and ending with WWII and inevitable change? The series had a brilliant look, gorgeous scenery, great furniture, but most of all…great characterization, especially Clare Bloom as the mother who knew she was right with an absolute belief in her version of her religion – so certain that she bred it into her children, and when they tried to pull away, one was destroyed and another left bereft of all future happiness.
The original, written for the screen by John Mortimer, presented that elegantly handsome impeccable world, with Jeremy Irons as Charles, Anthony Andrews as Sebastian, and the incomparable Laurence Olivier as the father.
The decline of Sebastian, his death at the doorstep of the church in Morocco, his younger sister’s assessment that “…it wasn’t a bad way to get through life, that God loved the weak and suffering” present a point of view of that family, at that time, in that place…and Charles’s inevitable conversion is Waugh’s own conversion. All in all, 11 hours of great viewing.
And so I went to see the remake. A handsome film to watch – same house, same fountain, not quite the same furnishings, but I soon realized that this was an entirely different story. No way to compare. Nothing to fight over. The writer’s take on Waugh’s novel was completely different. And the lovely subtlety of characterization was gone. If there was a “message,” it was stated in neon.
Sebastian had lost his complexity. In this version, he is simply a homosexual, unhappy with his family, and descending into alcoholism. He befriends Charles Ryder and the relationship, not subtle, is pointed out as he kisses Charles on the lips. Charles does not respond but does not protest.
In the original, these are two Oxford friends, drawn together because of Sebastian’s need to have “someone of his own,” not chosen by his family and Charles’s (motherless and in the hands of a rather cold and unresponsive father) love of the beauty of Sebastian’s world…they fall happily together. There is an innocence to their friendship. The father has long ago escaped this stifling world and lives with his gorgeous mistress, who notes the sweetness of the boys’ affection and, during their stay in Italy, states it: In England, schoolboys make these attachments that last very late; lovely if they do not go on too long.
Charles, in this new version, is reduced simply to a social climber. His love of the sister, so intricately developed in the original, is reduced to his sinister aspirations to insinuate himself into this rich family. The sister speaks it right out. So why bother to develop the characterization? And the mother, played in the new version by the wonderful Emma Thompson, has a clear, unequivocal message. She’s cold and dominating, and also she knows it and voices her fear that her children may not like her. Differing entirely is the errant father, played by the also terrific Michael Gambon. In the original, Laurence Olivier – stiff, superior, highly educated -sneers at everything not in his circle, but in the “remake,” Michael Gambon is simply a guilty husband who had run out on his wife.
In the original, the defining scene is the father’s death. Ryder, having given up not only his wife but two children, has lived happily with the sister for some time; they are both now divorced and on the verge of marriage when, on his deathbed, the father – the sinner – when prompted by the priest, makes the sign of Confession. The daughter now realizes the rightness of her faith which would reduce a really happy relationship to living in sin, and that’s the end of that.
In the original, Ryder converts in the old chapel. In the new version, he sees the burning candle, goes to snuff it out, and changes his mind.
The same castle, the same fountain. Major points are touched but not developed. Without seeing the original, calling it something else, it’s a passably interesting film. But…a big but…there was something quite wonderful in two Oxford pals who, for their own reasons, find solace in each other’s company, and something powerful in how religious absolutism can destroy love…or…if you see it that way, how religious obligation will bring satisfaction to come in another sphere.
To see how a Waugh novel can be wonderfully done, try Bright Young Things taken from his novel, Vile Bodies.
So this is not actually a film fight. It’s two different films on a similar theme, with a few scenes from one repeated in the other. The second a handsome piece with some good players and differently motivated characters. But the first a piece of art, worth a place on your Classics shelf.