Friday, October 03, 2008

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED - so rudely forced

The following assumes familiarity with the novel and the 1981 TV series, and is replete with spoilers.

What is BRIDESHEAD REVISITED about? From that question follows all choices made by screen-writer Andrew Davies in editing down a novel replete with events, characters, superficial luxuriance and profound political and spiritual discourse. What is necessary? What is secondary? What can be safely altered to satisfy the exigencies of the two-hour film without changing the source-text or, worse still, render the result illogical?

For me, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED is an elegy for lost values. The values of discretion, discernment, elegance, friendship, love and faith in a world dominated by economic turbulence, vulgar ambition and the random cruelty of global war. People remember the novel for its depiction of the idyllic lifestyle of the British aristocracy - dreaming spires, champagne and strawberries, coming out balls in Mayfair and Venetian palazzos. But it's also a novel about General Strikes, mortgaged properties being demolished for modern apartment blocks, impending war and skeletal whores. To create a novel about an insular love story is to miss half the point.

The first fault of the film is its lack of elegance or subtlety. Take the early scenes at Oxford. We are introduced to Matthew Goode (a tremendously good performance) as Charles Ryder. He is a gentleman, from a good if not leading (with a capital "L") school. He is meant to be a little dazzled by the glamorous and beautiful Lord Sebastian Flyte, but he should not feel too lowly to be in their company. He cannot compete with Sebastian's eccentricities or Anthony Blanche's outré stories, but it was quite absurd to see Boy Mulcaster ask if he was from Eton, or gods preserve us, Winchester! After all, Evelyn Waugh makes quite a point of telling us that these boys are so well bred that they would not dream of letting on that they had not met Charles before. Andrew Davies confounds this error by allowing Charles to wear flannels to supper at Brideshead when everyone else is in White Tie. At every turn, Davies wants to bludgeon us with the idea that Charles is a lower class arriviste, and, on some level, simply after the house! By contrast, see how subtly Waugh exposes Charles with his sly little comment about Bellini.

The lack of subtlety stretches to the characterisation of each main character. Sebastian is portrayed by Ben Whishaw as a mincing alcoholic. Anthony Blanche looks about forty and is menacing rather than a piercingly observant eccentric. Julia (Hayley Atwell) is a repressed, obedient daughter with none of the independence or complexity of the novel. Lord Marchmain is an old rogue with none of the Byronic aura of Olivier's portrayal. And Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) is a screen villain who speaks glibly about responsibility, destiny and faith.

This brings us to the second major flaw with this film. There is no "creamy English charm". Anthony Blanche had it perfectly, when he said that Sebastian and his family were simply dripping in charm and that they would catch Charles with it, and use him for their own ends. But the scant screen-time at Oxford never lets us see Sebastian seduce Charles with his charming lifestyle. And the portrayal of Lady Marchmain is utterly devoid of charm. She does not flatter one with intimacy and special attention, but commands with authority. It's very important to our continuing empathy with Charles that he doesn't realise that he is betraying Sebastian until after he has been drawn in. It is part of Charles' naivety that he believes that he can be Sebastian's true friend and a friend of the family up to the horrid Christmas as the final break. It is very important that Lady Marchmain should repent of her harsh words to Charles. If she cannot repent, then she is not human, and does not deserve our sympathy. And Emma Thompson's Lady Marchmain never does.

The third flaw is Andrew Davies' treatment of Julia. One of the most elegant symmetries in the novel is that Sebastian is Julia's forerunner - and that Sebastian must fade out of our sight for Charles to realise that he is in love with Julia. In this film, Julia is present throughout, staying at Brideshead during Charles and Sebastian's perfect summer and accompanying them to Venice. Because of this, we never see Charles enchantment with Sebastian and the secret world through the low door in the wall. Moreover, Julia is never an enigmatic, desperately glamorous, almost unattainable woman. Part of the joy of the relationship for Charles is that he has drawn down the moon - both with Julia and Brideshead. But in the film, she is simply the conventional best friend's sister.

In Andrew Davies' adaptation, Charles and Julia realise that they are in love early on - in Venice - in the full gaze of Sebastian and Lord Marchmain. This gives Andrew Davies a convenient hook upon which to hang Sebastian's plunge into alcoholism and flight to Morocco. I quite gasped when I heard the clumsy and anachronistic exit line "You only wanted to sleep with my sister". This motivation is crude and reductive. It also gives Davies a problem. If Julia and Charles know they are in love, why don't they simply marry? Davies "solves" this by making Lady Marchmain a pantomime villain, and Julia subservient. Mummy commands marriage to a Catholic of good family and Julia obeys. At this point, Davies would've been better off conjuring up a Bridey-esque dull Catholic aristo. For why on earth would Lady Marchmain have approved of Rex - a vulgar, Canadian, who, it is later revealed, wasn't even Catholic?

The obedient marriage gives Davies yet another problem. It was plausible that Julia might seriously consider a life "in sin" with Charles when she had already defied her Church in her marriage, and then in the affair which puts her on the Atlantic liner. By contrast, in Andrew Davies' script, I never believed that Julia would go through with it. She is always obedient, apart from a few weeks of passion with Charles. We didn't need Bridey's priggish comments, or the crisis at the fountain, or the arguments over her father's deathbed, to bring Julia back to the Church and away from Charles. We have to believe that Julia has led a life away from "his mercy" for us to benefit from the dramatic turnaround in the denouement and to feel the full force of what has been snatched away from Charles.

In the final scene, we are restored to Brideshead in World War Two and Charles makes no straightforward pronouncement of faith. He refuses to extinguish a candle in the chapel but the reasons for this are ambiguous - it could be out of respect for the memory of Sebastian and Julia rather than out of faith. Accordingly, the film looses the profound emotional charge of the final pages of the novel.

My abiding feeling at the end of the film was that it had been adapted by a screenwriter who didn't particularly like or understand the novel. Yes, one must be concise and lose plot threads, but to alter so profoundly the fundamental meaning of the novel is unforgivable. To answer my original question, BRIDESHEAD is a book about the complexity of friendship, love and faith. It is not about a man who lost a woman because he tried for a grand house but wouldn't convert to get it.

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED was released earlier this year in the US, Greece, the Netherlands, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark. It opens this weekend in Australia and the UK. It opens on October 23rd in New Zealand and Portugal and on October 31st in Norway and Spain. It opens in Germany on November 20th and in Belgium on January 9th.

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