There’s no doubt that superheroes and stoners are king at this summer’s box office, but if you’re craving a little romanticism – oh hell, a LOT of romanticism – and stories that don’t rely on car chases, Swedish pop music or the wit of forty-year-old adolescents, then Julian Jarrold’s Brideshead Revisited may be exactly what you’re looking for. The film is already drawing comparisons to last year’s epic period piece Atonement. On the surface these two films appear to be very similar – both are adapted from remarkable works of fiction, set in similar time periods and locations, and each film features a young man of humble birth who falls for a woman of a much higher social standing. While both films touch on the struggle between the classes, Atonement explores the power of words, perception, and forgiveness, while Brideshead Revisited focuses more on religion and the often incomprehensible meanderings of the human heart. Today these films forget their good breeding, set aside their high society manners, and battle it out to prove that they are not your parents’ period dramas.
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Julian Jarrold directs the latest version of Evelyn Waugh’s famous Brideshead Revisited. Set in England during the years before WWII, the film centers around Charles Ryder, a young middle class painter. During his first year at Oxford Charles meets Sebastian Flyte, a beguiling and flamboyant aristocrat. Sebastian and Charles begin an intense, though platonic, friendship. Their relationship is further complicated when Charles spends the summer at Sebastian’s sprawling estate at Brideshead and is introduced to Sebastian’s glamorous sister, Julia, and their devoutly Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain. Both brother and sister claim to be “heathens” and “sinners,” but both are so tied to their mother’s dogma that it will haunt them the rest of their lives. Julia and Sebastian are drawn to Charles because he is completely untouched by the world they live in. Charles, however, is dazzled by their opulent lifestyle, by the palatial Brideshead, and by the siblings and all that they represent. He’s so taken by it all, in fact, that he soon finds himself swept up in the family’s convoluted affairs.
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The Defending Champion
Joe Wright’s Atonement begins on a hot summer day in 1935. Thirteen year-old Briony Tallis witnesses from her bedroom window the developing relationship between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, the son of a servant. When Briony, who is infatuated with Robbie, reads a sexually explicit letter Robbie has sent to Cecilia and then interrupts a private moment between them, her confusion and resentment grow until she tells a spiteful lie that changes all three of their lives forever.
Director Julian Jarrold and writers Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock had two distinct obstacles when making Brideshead Revisited — staying true to a beloved classic while offering something different from the much-lauded 11-hour miniseries from the 1980s. The filmmakers’ take on the novel is much more modern. Everything is more urgent, more gay, more passionate than the original source material, though cramming the novel into a two-hour film definitely requires quite a lot of, um, streamlining. Davies and Brock did the best they could, but there simply isn’t time to build rich and fully developed characters, so when the characters dance nimbly (and apparently effortlessly) from one moral high ground to the next, we’re left wondering what we missed.
In the novel the exact nature of the relationship between Sebastian and Charles is vague and readers are never quite sure if the two are actually lovers. For the film, the writers have thrust darling, fey Sebastian out of the closet. While Charles is at first sexually ambivalent, after meeting Julia — and after sharing a decidedly chaste kiss with her brother — he settles firmly into the land of heterosexuals with hardly a backward glance. While the snog between Charles and Sebastian will leave some Waugh fans gnashing their teeth, other, more literal-minded fans will be glad to finally get a definitive answer about the two men’s relationship.
By contrast, Atonement is one of Ian McEwan’s most haunting works, and is not one that easily lends itself to adaptation. However, writer Christopher Hampton’s script stays very faithful to the original, while deftly navigating back and forth through time without losing the audience.
Director Joe Wright has carefully crafted every frame, down to the actors’ choreographed movement. Moments of quickly paced chaos are followed by interludes of serenity and calm. One of the film’s visual highlights is the four-minute-long steady cam shot of the beach at Dunkirk, which is so beautifully tragic and slightly absurd that it feels as if the characters have happened upon a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Both Brideshead Revisted and Atonement boast wonderful casts. In Brideshead Revisited Emma Thompson plays the severe Lady Marchmain. Thompson doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but
her performance is brilliant. While she makes suggestions softly and with a smile, there can be no mistaking that they are actually commands. Despite her professed love of God, Lady Marchmain drives her children not toward heaven, but to madness. Thompson gives a complex and nuanced performance, fleshing out a character that the screenwriters have made rather two dimensional. Of course, I must admit that I am somewhat biased. Emma Thompson could do toilet paper adverts and I would declare them Oscar worthy.
Young Charles is meant to be fresh-faced and unformed, but Matthew Goode plays him so apathetically that when he does finally show some emotion, it comes a bit of a shock. Ben Whishaw as Sebastian gives a stand out performance, stealing almost every scene in which he appears. Hayley Atwell smolders appropriately as Julia, but isn’t given much to do except ping-pong between lust and guilt (but
really, haven’t we all been there?).
In Atonement Keira Knightly and James McAvoy give their best performances to date, but the real stand out is Saoirse Ronan as thirteen year-old Briony, whose feverish imagination and confusing child-adult feelings cause her to falsely accuse Robbie of a crime he did not commit. Romola Garai, too, does a lovely job of portraying the eighteen year-old and now repentant Briony. Looking suitably haggard, Vanessa Redgrave plays Briony as a much older woman, and while she has the least amount of screen-time of the three, it is she who delivers the last emotional punch of the story while asking for
a forgiveness I wasn’t sure I wanted to give.
It is nearly impossible to watch Atonement without contemplating the very nature of betrayal, truth and perception. The film lingered in my admittedly jaded brain long after I’d left the theater. Brideshead Revisited doesn’t carry the same emotional weight. Despite its lovely cast and gorgeous locations, the writers just aren’t able to reconcile their modern liberal take on the novel with Waugh’s views on Catholicism. In the film, religion is an oppressive force that drives Sebastian to drink and Julia into an unhappy marriage. Charles, an atheist, witnesses firsthand how Lady Marchmain wields her faith like a weapon. “God is your best invention,” he says to her. “Whatever you want, He does.” Essentially, Charles loses both Sebastian and Julia to their own guilt and struggle with religion, which makes his sudden openness to spirituality at the end of the film all the more confusing.
Brideshead Revisited was worth the admission and a large box of popcorn, but Atonement is breathtaking.