Brideshead on film

August 5, 2008

I went last night with a friend to see the new film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.  Several months ago I posted the film’s trailer here, and expressed concern about what I saw. I am relieved to say that though the film has problems, including some serious ones, it is not as bad as I had feared.

These notes contain spoilers.

A film cannot be a book, and I do not expect the filmmaker to include every scene and emotional nuance that the author includes.  The medium and the limited playing time demand that the story be streamlined, and that some elements be compressed or even omitted entirely.  What I do expect from a literary adaptation is that the central arc of the story be preserved, with its relative emphases and central concerns intact. And of course I ask that, whatever changes the screenwriters decide to make, the resulting story must be believable on its own terms.

As I see it, this film has two main flaws. It does not preserve the central arc of the story, and as a result it undermines the believability of the story that it does retain. Waugh said that the main theme of the book is religious in nature: it is about the movement of grace in the lives of his characters, and especially in the life of Charles.  The film does manage to convey this to some extent — with Sebastian and Julia — but it fails to even try with Charles, and this is just about enough to ruin the whole film. Charles remains ever on the outside, observing but not involved, and the final scene in the chapel at Brideshead has taken on a different meaning entirely.

I expect that the decision to alter the ending in this way resulted from a deeper thematic problem with the film. If Charles is to be drawn into the life of faith, there must be something attractive about that life, and the film fails to tell us what that might be. Catholicism is reduced to one note: guilt. The scheme is almost comical in its simplicity. Everybody feels guilty, and suffocates in their guilt. Lady Marchmain, by far the worst adapted of the characters, has become a kind of personification of guilt, a growling thundercloud that rains on everybody’s parade. Guilt does play a role in the book — we mustn’t forget that Sebastian and Julia are both guilty of something — but it is not the sad simplification that it is here.

This gloomy faith gives Charles little enough reason to take an interest; it lets him turn his back and walk away when Waugh has him kneeling in reverance. But for the same reason it undermines whatever motive Julia might have for kneeling, yet she kneels, which hurts the film’s internal credibility.

Such are the film’s main problems, as I see them, and they are serious, but there are some good things in the screenplay as well. I thought that both Sebastian and Julia were very well rendered and acted, and Cordelia came through beautifully. There is something empty and insubstantial about Charles, and I thought the film captured that well. The friendship of Charles and Sebastian is complex, and some readers find in it a faint implication of homosexual attraction (though I remain skeptical myself).  The filmmakers have amplified those faint implications so as to remove all doubt in the matter. On the other hand, the breakdown of their friendship on account of Charles’ growing attraction for Julia I thought well done. The deathbed scene, overlooking for the moment the way they botched Charles’ role in it, was otherwise powerfully affecting and retained its standing as the story’s central pivot.

More superficially, I must say that the film is beautiful to look at: I was taken with the beauty of Brideshead, Oxford, and Venice, and my friend took a special interest in Julia (As he put it, “They have the psychology of temptation down pat.”).

I think that on balance I would recommend the film to readers of the book, but with reservations. For someone who has not read the book, the film is no substitute.

3 Responses to “Brideshead on film”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Unfortunately, for me, the film was far worse than I feared. Andrew Davies should stick to Victorian authors. You are, of course, correct in the flaws you pointed out. Of the complete recasting of Lady Marchmain’s character, nothing more need be said: its crudeness is so obvious.

    On the theme of guilt that you mention, I would take it even further and say that even as a study of guilt it is a failure. One of the clearest signs that the screenwriters do not understand (or willingly reject) the message of the book is in how they portray Julia and Sebastian. In the novel, both of them freely choose their misery. In Julia’s case this is quite clear, as she willingly chooses to marry Rex, which she knows in her heart is wrong. For Sebastian, it is a bit more subtle and would require more space to expand upon, but it is perhaps most starkly said by Lady Marchmain, when she visits Charles in Oxford: “But he’s been free, always, up till now.”

    In the film, however, they are decidedly not free. Their unhappiness is due only to fate and the oppressive Lady
    Marchmain. Julia is pressured into her marriage, which, by the way, is probably invalid, especially given Rex’s manifest insincerity. Sebastian is clearly under psychological duress, again, from their mother. What can the film say about guilt then? True guilt can only be for something freely chosen — otherwise it is scrupulosity, if even that.

    The filmmakers chose to focus on images of Madonna and Child (and occasionally crosses) for their religious imagery. I’m not sure what they intended: was it to contrast ideal motherhood with Lady Marchmain? Or was it that Catholic Mariology becomes a tool for mothers to abuse their children? (After all, this image is generally shown in negative scenes, most strikingly after Julian runs away from Charles in Venice.) Or perhaps it is just as simple as that since the Madonna and child is a common Catholic ikon, the filmmakers lazily threw it in.

    Of the deathbed scene, I will not comment except to say that without Charles’s participation, it loses its meaning: the faith becomes a purely private affair, and as portrayed, is practically superstitious.

    I would agree that Julia was very well acted, and I also liked that in this adaptation she and Sebastian were physically similar (unlike in the Grenada production). However, I thought Sebastian was not well acted. There was nothing particularly charming or attractive about him — what motivation does Charles, the intelligent artist, have for befriending him?

    Finally, I think perhaps the film’s most serious flaw is the idea that Charles loved and desired excessively. He begins the film with the assured statement that “he wants to be happy” and that he wants not to have to look back on his life with regret. He is a confident atheist (in the novel he is a rather conventional agnostic.) And by the end of the film, Julia leaves him saying that he wanted too much, and he asks himself at the end that very question. He tells Hooper that he has “loved and lost enough for one lifetime”. But in the novel, through all his human relationships, he is learning how to love. Here, he starts the novel groping for human affection, “searching for love”,

    with the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden.

    The whole direction of his journey, as Waugh himself said, is towards grace. It is not through excess of love that Charles fails, but rather by not loving enough and not loving in the right way. In the novel even his sinful love is turned, by grace, to good ends. He says to Julia that Sebastian was “the forerunner”, and indeed Julia is herself a forerunner to the culmination of the novel, where he kneels in the chapel by the lamp “burning anew among the old stones”.

    The good points of the film? The photography, as you point out, is sumptuous. The score was pretty good, though a bit overbearing at times. Charles is presented as a budding artist from the very beginning, which I liked. Julia and Sebastian are physically alike, as I pointed out.

    Well, this was rather a hodgepodge of observations and criticisms. I almost feel like a put-out Star Wars fan listing scene by scene (with colour coding) the flaws in The Phantom Menace. I guess if one is disappointed by a film, there is still pleasure in dissecting it.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thank you, Adam, for your thoughtful comments. You’ve given me much to think about, with respect to both the film and the novel.

    I think you have drawn out two very significant problems with the film. The crude portrait of Lady Marchmain distorts her relationship to her children, which in turn distorts their motives for acting as they do. Rather than living through sin and redemption, we have simply oppression and ways of escape. It’s an excellent point that cuts right to the heart of the story.

    I like, too, your point about Charles’ motives. In the film he is basically a static figure — perhaps he develops a bit of back-bone and grows a little more jaded and resigned, but he does not grow in love. He is no larger at the end than at the beginning; he is not seeking, much less finding, “that low door in the wall”. Because he is our narrator, this converts the whole drama into something that affects them, a curiosity. I can see your point about how this detachment perverts the deathbed scene, and to a point I agree. Certainly when I saw Charles turn and leave the room I clutched my hair and pulled. Yet we did see its effect on Julia, and for me that redeemed the scene a little.

    I don’t know what to think about the Catholic imagery in the film. I expect it was lazily thrown in.

    It might be worth noting something that my friend (actually, Adam, our friend Mr. Elliot) pointed out about the audience at the screening we attended. In the early going, we heard a number of snickers at the religiosity of the Flytes, and approving murmers as the film’s psychology of religion (guilt, guilt, and guilt) was unfolded. But as the film progressed, and we saw the invalid Sebastian confessing that all along he had desired that love that only God could give, and we saw Julia’s earnest prayer at her father’s bedside, and her resolve not to let Charles come between her and His mercy, the audience turned mute, and we had the impression that they were taken aback by these deviations from “the script”. As poor as some aspects of this film were, we shouldn’t underestimate the quality of what remains.

    Like you, I could have chanted a litany of minor problems with the movie: Bridey did not have the dignity he deserved, Sebastian’s outburst at Julia’s birthday party was a tone-deaf interpolation, Rex Mottram’s catechesis scene was cut, and so on. I agree that pointing them out is enjoyable.

    Thank you again, Adam.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Stephen Greydanus has written a characteristically thoughtful review of the film at Decent Films.

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