While some might be making their second and third visits, this would be my first visit to Brideshead. The stately manor is overwhelmingly alluring. It commands attention and imposes its values upon all who enter or even enter its proximity. On many levels, it deserves the focus it insists upon but it does sit there with a certain air of pompous self-assurance. It takes itself very seriously and it would appear as though its influence stretches as far as the director of the movie that revolves around it, Julian Jarrold. “Brideshead Revisited” plays out as though it believes in its own importance, as though it can do no wrong and all who bask in its glory are fortunate for the opportunity. It is only a short ways in, when Jarrold seems to get over his own ego and stops trying so hard to be something he’s not, that we are even allowed into Brideshead. Once inside though, it is clear that there is much history and depth to be taken in. Oh, and one hell of a matriarch to reckon with.
We are introduced to Brideshead at the same time as Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a young painter in his first year at Oxford University who comes from a humble heritage. Everything is so new to him; the world is opening up to him. It is his first time away from home, his first time pursuing his passions and his first time exploring the bonds to be had between men. At Oxford, he meets Sebastian Flyte (Ben Wishaw). Sebastian hails from Brideshead and has wanted for nothing his entire life with the exception of having an actual life of his own. He is a peculiar boy, soft and delicate, who sits to lunch with a battered teddy bear and Charles falls for him instantly. Charles sees something magical about the man but there is something even more alluring about the way Sebastian holds him in such regard. Charles is sold though when Sebastian brings him to Brideshead. Goode’s lucent blue eyes beam with enthusiasm at everything he is now a part of.
Before long, Charles is a part of the family. With no family of his own, he is overwhelmed by this but he will soon discover that this is much less an honour and much more so a curse. As his relationship with Sebastian becomes strained, he meets Julia Flyte (Haley Atwell), Sebastian’s sister. She is as particular as her brother but more detached, independent and vivacious. She soon catches his attention and the twisted triangle that inevitably develops soon catches the attention of the lady of the house, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). Lady Marchmain is as authoritative and commanding as the home she oversees. In fact, she is so imposing that her presence and the fear she induces is felt long before we even see her grace the screen. Thompson, as always, is magnificent. The manner in which she asks a question implies the expected answer and the control she exudes over her children and in the name of God, is masterful. Her face may be constantly at peace, her hair may be perfectly placed at all times but her but the virtue she puts forth never diminishes her power.
The first visit to Brideshead is certainly memorable but when Brideshead is revisited, the film loses its urgency and direction. It becomes unclear how it all could possibly end with any sense of excitement or necessity. Charles has gotten himself into a right mess and it’s obvious why Sebastian avoided so diligently introducing him to his family to begin with. Brideshead requires a certain standard by all who enter and, as only Lady Marchmain can live up to them, Charles too struggles with falling prey to the guilt both the manor and the God that presides over it impose. Interestingly enough, Charles, a self-professed atheist, becomes something of a saviour to the Brideshead clan. It is unfortunate though that “Brideshead Revisited” couldn’t find the same fortune and find its own.
Review by Joseph Bélanger