Volume 78 / Number 10 August 6 - 12, 2008
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Koch on Film

By Ed Koch

“Brideshead Revisited” (+)

This movie, based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh, was not well received by the critics, and they were right to pan it. I believe it is worth seeing, however, particularly if you enjoyed the 1981 British television series “Brideshead Revisited,” now almost 30 years old. Why? Just as the film “Sex and the City” was not very good, it was a stroll back in time for those of us who loved the series.

The very wealthy and powerful Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) lives on the family estate in England known as Brideshead. Her husband, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), moved to Venice with his mistress, Cara (Greta Scacchi). Lady Marchmain’s dashing, homosexual son, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), meets a handsome, middle-class chap at Oxford, Charles (Matthew Goode), who becomes infatuated with the Marchmain family after a weekend visit to their estate. Charles soon begins an intimate relationship with Sebastian and later becomes involved with Sebastian’s sister, Julie (Hayley Atwell).

While the acting in the film is good, it cannot compare with the outstanding performances of the television cast, which included Claire Bloom (Lady Marchmain), Laurence Olivier (Lord Marchmain), Stephane Audran (Cara), Anthony Andrews (Sebastian), Jeremy Irons (Charles), and Diana Quick (Julia). I missed Anthony Andrews’ brilliant portrayal of Sebastian as a youth and as an older man living in Morocco suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, as well as Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Charles and his off-screen voice filling in the gaps and passage of time.

The plots of the TV miniseries and those of the film center around the Marchmain family. I don’t recall the series focusing as much on the issue of religion and Catholic guilt, however. In the movie, Lady Marchmain seems to care little about Charles’ relationship with her son. Her major problem is that Charles, a proclaimed atheist, is becoming seriously involved with her daughter.

The movie version of “Brideshead Revisited” was a little too long whereas the 11-episode TV series went by much too quickly. For all who admired the television series, go see the film. You will enjoy being transported to Britain during the period between the First and Second World Wars, and you will take great pleasure in seeing how the British upper, upper class lived, the clothing they wore, and the cars they drove. My inclination now is to borrow the TV series from a friend and spend several enjoyable hours revisiting Brideshead once again.

HS said: “This is not a great movie, or even a memorable one, but for those of you who perv on the British aristocracy and suppressed erotic desire of both varieties, it will do nicely as entertainment. It can also be recommended to deeply believing Catholics, classic car buffs and people who love Venice and Oxford but don’t have the money to visit.  There are a lot of middle-aged servants, dressed in black and white, who must dust the enormous building and chapel every day.  Tom Eliot would like the place.

 The protagonist, Charles, is a conventional Wasp who says very little, and then only in response to questions.  He is embraced by all the members of a decadent family of lords and ladies, none of whom appears to do anything to earn a living.  You really can’t take the picture that seriously. I don’t think Evelyn Waugh would.  But it will not cause him to spin in his grave.”

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