Monday, July 18, 2011

Movie Monday: Brideshead Revisited

This week's Movie Monday is a bit of a change of pace; we'll be looking at the 2008 feature film version of Brideshead Revisited!

I didn't plan on picking this film for a Movie Monday, but Darlin' Tracy and I watched it last week and I liked it quite a bit--enough to want to, um, revisit here.

Plus, after doing some research online (as opposed to what, microfiche?) I saw that the film was generally dismissed, if not outright loathed, by a great many critics, which kind of shocked me--this is usually the kind of movie critics drool over: a period piece! Literary source material! English accents! So what's so bad about this version of Brideshead Revisited?

The film opens with a pre-credits sequence: sometime during WWII, a man walks through a vast mansion, a castle really, as all manner of uniformed soldiers mill about. He heads outside:
The two men walk, and we see the man's face: actor Matthew Goode (probably best known to most of you reading this as Ozymandias in Watchmen) as Charles Ryder, our main character.
We flash forward a bit, and Ryder is now a successful painter. He and his wife are being fĂȘted by a large group of wealthy aristocrats aboard a cruise ship, who are apparently buying up his work.

But Ryder looks bored being there: as his wife acts as his PR person/agent, he avoids talking to anyone, and has to fake his way through conversations:
Out of the corner of his eye, he seems to spot someone he knows. All we can see is that's a woman, quickly leaving the room. Ryder follows her all the through the ship, ignoring everyone else. The woman keeps walking, almost as if she knows she's being followed. Ryder strains to keep up, until she enters a state room:
The woman turns--she's beautiful, and its clear she knows Charles and knew she was being followed. She smiles and says a satisfied hello. We then flashback ten years earlier.

Charles is a young man going off to college. He comes from a decidedly middle-class home, with a father who is almost comically cold to his son: he seems barely interested in even saying a proper goodbye to the boy.

At college, Charles gets a tour of the place, learning that its mostly filled with rich kids, kids who don't seem too interested in much of anything but partying. Indeed, one of them leans into Charles' window and vomits right onto the carpet!

The young drunkard in question is named Sebastian, and is a member of the wealthy Marchmain family. Sebastian takes an immediate like to Charles, and they quickly become best friends. But you get the sense that Sebastian sees their friendship as something more.
While staying at the Marchmain's vast grounds--Brideshead--Sebastian lets his feelings be known to Charles, with a gentle yet passionate kiss. Charles response is so subtle it took me a few minutes to figure out what it was exactly: at first it seems like he is completely ignoring it, but then it became to clear to me that he neither accepts or rejects his friend. By not freaking out, but also not reciprocating, he lets Sebastian know that this is not the kind of friendship they have; but doesn't judge him for feeling differently or being who he is.

Sebastian drinks too much--way too much--and after Charles goes back to school he gets a telegram from Sebastian saying he was in a horrible accident. Charles hops on a train to go back to Brideshead. Sebastian sends his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) to pick him up:
We see that this the woman Charles reunites with on the ship ten years hence.

Indeed, it doesn't take Charles long to fall for Julia, hard. Sebastian (who lied about the accident, just using it a ruse to get Charles to come visit) is overwhelmingly jealous, and tries to end his friendship with Charles, but you can tell this is mostly just him lashing out. He continues drinking, and when he is invited to Venice by his estranged father, Sebastian's mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, cast against type as a cold fish) asks Charles to go along to try and keep her son out of trouble.

Lady Marchmain has her doubts about Charles: they are devoutly Catholic while he is an avowed atheist; but she is so desperate over Sebastian she feels she has no one else to turn to.

Unfortunately for Sebastian, its in Venice that Charles and Julia admit their feelings for one another, even if Julia admits they cannot be together: Charles' lack of wealth--not to mention his atheism--is too wide a chasm for her family to accept. They share a passionate kiss, which Sebastian spies, but after that Julia keeps her distance.

One of the things that impressed me about this film was the visuals: there are scenes here I found breathtaking in their beauty; the color and composition are simply gorgeous:
I wonder why more big-budget films don't bother with visuals like this for the most part; I can only imagine what a superhero movie might feel like if matched with beautiful shot compositions like these.

Anyway, Sebastian is utterly crushed over Charles falling for Julia. He drinks so much that Lady Marchmain withdraws his regular allowance. Sebastian begs Charles for some money, which he gives him. When Sebastian shows up drunk at Julia's birthday/engagement party, Lady Marchmain tells Charles he is no longer welcome at Brideshead. This, combined with Julia's engagement (to a rich Canadian Catholic), is devastating to Charles.

Years pass, and Charles is shocked to find Lady Marchmain in his home. She looks much older, and she sadly reports that Sebastian flew off to Morocco, and is gravely ill. She begs Charles to go there and bring him home, so she can see him before either of them die.

Charles goes, and finds his friend in sad shape, practically an invalid:
Sebastian is happy to see his friend, and is obviously in no condition to go anywhere. They say a sad goodbye, and Lady Marchmain is crushed that she will never see her son again.

Charles starts his career as a painter, and meets the young woman who will become his wife. They seem to like one another, though she seems as much in love with what Charles will become as who he is actually is. When he meets Julia again on the ship, they waste no time, throwing caution to the wind and making love, right there on the floor of the state room.

Charles and Julia go back to Brideshead, having decided to be together and leave their respective spouses. Charles tries to talk to Rex, Julia's husband, about being willing to give her up. Rex is a complete pig; willing to sell his wife for a couple of Charles' paintings. He even admits to faking his Catholicism just to get in good with the Marchmains. Julia overhears all this.

Just as Charles and Julia are about to leave to live in Italy, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) arrives, with not long to live. Gathering with this children (Julia has an older brother and younger sister), he prepares to die. His family wants him to receive last rites, which he initially refuses. But in his dying moments, he accepts them, even crossing himself as his dying act. Charles doesn't know what to make of this--a lifelong atheist, like himself, undergoing the proverbial deathbed conversion.

Later, Charles and Julia's relationship cracks under her devotion to Catholicism; bothered by the transaction between her ex- and future husbands, she realizes she cannot in good conscience run away with another man. Choosing to stay at Brideshead, Julia breaks it off with Charles.

The film then circles back to the very beginning: more years have passed, and World War II is underway. The British Army has taken over Brideshead to use as a military base. Charles is told what happened to the Marchmains; the junior officer of course not knowing the connection:
Lady Marchmain died years ago, and so has the eldest son Bridey. Julia is now serving as part of the war effort. Brideshead is all covered up, quite literally a shell of its former self.

Alone, Charles visits Brideshead's chapel, which is big and elaborate enough to be its own church. He finds a single lit candle still glowing:
He contemplates extinguishing it, but then stops himself. He walks out, leaving it still burning. The End.

As I mentioned above, the critical response to this movie version of Brideshead Revisited was pretty negative. A.O. Scott of The New York Times said it was "
tedious, confused and banal", and other critics were almost as harsh.

Most of the criticism seemed to have a common element: that it can't hold a, er, candle to the PBS mini-series that ran in 1981 which was something like seven hours long. While that might be true, I've never seen that version of Brideshead Revisited; I'm meeting this characters for the first time, so I don't have any superior version to compare this to and find wanting.

While there are elements to this film that I found a little less than fleshed out--the whole religious divide angle, which drives the movie, doesn't get mentioned as much as it should have been. In a rush to fit all the events and themes of the original 1945 novel into a two-hour movie, the machinations of the plot are given more weight, making it more of a soap opera: and while that seemed to be unforgivable to those more familiar with the source material, it made the film compelling viewing for me (and Darlin' Tracy).

I thought Matthew Goode was terrific as Charles; and was pleasantly surprised when I realized I had seen him previously in Watchmen. I thought he just wasn't up to the task of playing Ozymandias, but clearly that wasn't because he can't act: here he fills the space, and draws you in, quite admirably.

As I mentioned before, the film is beautiful to look at, and while I'm usually bored to tears by big CGI-aramas when all they offer is pretty pictures, this film's use of the natural world (sets, colors, etc.) made the film a visual treat.

Having enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, the film makes me want to go back to the PBS mini series, and possibly even the book. Maybe either of those will be so superior to this film that it will color my view of it in retrospect; for now, all I can say is I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next week: something trashy again, I promise!

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