August 2, 2008

Condensed ‘Brideshead Revisited’ Sparks Concern Among Fans

By Michael O'Sullivan

For months now, "Brideshead Revisited" fans the world over have been atwitter over the possibility that the new feature film based on Evelyn Waugh's beloved 1945 novel would not include an appearance by Aloysius the teddy bear.

How could the filmmakers edit Aloysius out? He's not just a stuffed animal, you cried, but a symbol, essential to Waugh's tale of lost innocence. Well, I've seen the movie, boys and girls, and rest easy: Aloysius made the cut.

Wait a second, the rest of you are thinking right about now: Aloysius the teddy bear?

Doesn't ring a bell? Good. You're cleared for admission to the movie, which caters less to the loyal constituency who know and love the book -- or the slavishly faithful 11-hour television adaptation from 1981 -- than it does to folks who've never heard of either. All others likely will find something to carp about. The movie opens Friday.

But first, let me bring the newbies up to speed.

Set in England during the years leading up to World War II, "Brideshead" is a story of friendship, doomed love, the crumbling English aristocracy and the power of religion to heal and hurt. All that swirls around the head of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a young, middle-class atheist who, while a student at Oxford, becomes dangerously infatuated with the family of one of his school chums, Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw).

Sebastian is one of the great guilt-ridden characters of 20th- century English literature. The dipsomaniacal gay scion of an aristocratic Catholic family, he marches around campus with a large stuffed bear tucked under his arm and a bottle of booze under the other. As with many alcoholics, he alternates between two extremes: charming and treacherous. Whishaw is marvelous in the part, and while there's less of it here, his dark and brooding performance is on a par with that of Anthony Andrews in the Granada Television series.

Together, Sebastian and Charles embark on an ambiguous relationship. Something halfway between friendship and romance -- although, for Sebastian, it's almost certainly closer to romance. Based less on shared interests than on the principle of opposition to everything and everyone else, it's a partnership that's best summed up by the Latin motto Sebastian adopts for them: contra mundum ("against the world").

But here's a problem. Charles is less antisocial and less gay than Sebastian, whose sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) soon turns Charles' head -- and turns his world upside down. Their affair soon runs afoul of Julia's domineering mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), who can't allow her daughter to marry a nonbeliever, and Sebastian, who runs away to Morocco to nurse his broken heart. That leaves Charles solo, at the mercy of Lady Marchmain, whom Thompson plays as a sort of Mommie Dearest with a stiff upper lip. Her smiling machinations are among the film's treats.

OK, now for the quibbles. In the process of boiling down Waugh's already dense -- if less than epic -- novel into a feature-length film, it has become slightly ... deformed.

Oh, it's still recognizable. Sometimes a little too much so, as anyone who has seen the earlier version will notice. Stray bits of dialogue echo, as does the eerily familiar musical score. The iconic Castle Howard estate once again stands in for Brideshead, the ancestral home of Sebastian's family. Even Goode's Charles looks and sounds a lot like the young Jeremy Irons, whose performance in the TV series made him famous.

Purists, however, might be most alarmed to see how the love triangle has mutated, overshadowing the book's themes of God and redemption. While still there, those ideas have become nuance, rather than an integral part of the powerful and disturbing story. Timelines get compressed, with Julia appearing sooner, and more prominently, in the story.

But so what? Since when did it become illegal for literary adaptations to tweak their source material? Director Julian Jarrold ("Becoming Jane") and screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock sought -- and received -- permission from Waugh's heirs to make changes they felt necessary to telling the story in a condensed form.

The problem isn't that this "Brideshead" doesn't uphold the integrity of the book. For the most part, it does, in the way that a postcard from the beach, or a souvenir T-shirt, upholds the integrity of your summer vacation. It evokes, rather than misrepresents.

For those who have nothing to compare it with, the movie also will hold one enduring fascination. We Americans still are widely infected with the same class envy that holds Charles in its thrall. We do love to watch the nobles carry on, don't we? Especially when they've got British accents, great clothes, and they're more screwed up than we are.

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