A behind-the-scenes look at "Brideshead Revisited" with interviews with Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Matthew Goode and other cast and crew members. It follows the making of the 2008 film adaptation.
Revisiting ‘Brideshead,’ With All the Signs of Its Times (and Beyond)
By GINIA BELLAFANTEJULY 24, 2008
In certain quarters the film version of “Brideshead Revisited,” opening Friday, will bring doubt, dismissal, sourness and myriad other disappointments, reflexively and with no particular regard for its merits. For loyalists, the 1981 British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel of faith and dissipation, first shown here on PBS in 1982, obviated any need for a revival.
“Brideshead Revisited” was the sort of epic television event that gave rise to phrases like “epic television event.” Among its legacies, it helped establish Jeremy Irons as a star. He plays Charles Ryder, the novel’s central figure, a man reflecting on his life and country from the vantage point of middle age, a stand-in for Waugh’s belief in the loneliness of agnosticism.
“Brideshead” expanded the book’s 351 pages to 11 episodes and took 47 weeks to shoot. It is less interpretation than stenography; lengthy passages of text are recapitulated without alteration. What doesn’t reassert itself as dialogue takes the form of Ryder’s slow, sibilant, mournful voice-overs, expressions of his longing and detachment. So faithful is the production to the spirit and letter of Waugh’s 1945 original that it seems as if its creators feared that any variance or economy might constitute an assault on the entire enterprise of literature itself.
Twenty-six years after its American broadcast, “Brideshead Revisited,” which was rereleased on DVD in 2006, is both pleasure and punishment, anachronism and forecast. It starts and finishes with Ryder in the military toward the end of World War II, an occasion that returns him to Brideshead, the now barren estate of the Flyte family, where the ecstasies and misfortunes of his narrative unfold. He encounters the Flytes first through Sebastian (Anthony Andrews) at Oxford, during the bon vivant years between the wars, and later through Sebastian’s married sister, Julia (Diana Quick), his lover until her commitment to Roman Catholicism sends them each toward solitude.
Devoted to the university years, the first quarter of “Brideshead” is a tedious evocation of the freedoms and entitlements of the Bright Young Things, reveling in their epicurean fetishism. Too many tuxedos, too many luncheons and plover eggs, too many Champagne flutes and too much recuperation: it feels like 24 hours of the Fine Living Network.
Long, lingering shots of Brideshead abound and establish Ryder as a man whose sexual fluidity is less relevant to our understanding of him than the constancy of his reverence for the traditions and securities of wealth. In England, where the series fared only moderately well in the ratings, cultural critics aligned it with the politics of Thatcherism. Waugh made Ryder both the narrator of his past and the recorder of a larger one. An architectural painter, Ryder tells us explicitly that it is buildings, in all their permanence, that he holds in highest esteem — higher, presumably, than the mercurial creatures who reside in them.
“Brideshead” remains, undisputedly, a milestone in the history of mainstream depictions of homoerotic life. It enlivened the relationship between Ryder and Sebastian that the novel merely implies, slavishly submitting it to the forced naturalism of ’70s cinematic style. From a distance the camera fixates on the two as they languish in green fields, smoking and silently gazing at each other as if to say: “You are the essence of divinity. And I love your cashmere.” The series only heightens the obviousness of some of Waugh’s connotation; for instance it shows, early on in scene after scene, Sebastian clutching a large teddy bear — he calls it Aloysius — the unambiguous symbol of his resistance to maturity. (In London, after the series was first broadcast, stuffed animals became stylish accessories in nightclubs.)
No one ever talks about “Brideshead Revisited” in the same breath as “The Lost Weekend,” but it should be counted as one of the great treatises on alcoholism in the pre-therapeutic age. Sebastian’s submission to addiction is where the television version begins to find its bones, tracking with a grim precision the shift from youthful incaution to the uglier and abiding practice of drinking without contingency.
“I do not mind the idea of his being drunk,” Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom), remarks in her sublime and mannered naïveté. “It is the thing all men do when they are young. I’m used to the idea of it. What hurt last night is that there was nothing happy about it.”
Without the tools or language of recovery, Sebastian’s family imagines that cutting his allowance and hiding the decanters will save him. The stupendous failure of their methods is brilliantly satirized during a moment at the dinner table when Sebastian, passing his hand over his wineglass as the butler makes another round with a bottle, pauses and demands whiskey instead.
Sebastian’s romantic inclinations eventually take him to Morocco, where he supports a lover, a German officer of the Foreign Legion, emotionally broken and physically crippled. Sebastian’s disease — a term absent from the era’s vernacular for alcoholism — lands him in an infirmary, suffering from, of all things, pneumonia resulting from his worn immunity. The first AIDS film would not come until the mid-1980s, but the image of Sebastian, pallid, listless and emaciated, casts “Brideshead” as a chilling predictor of the epidemic, 1981 being the year that cases of a syndrome later identified as AIDS were reported in the United States.
It is worth considering that “Brideshead Revisited” appeared during — to borrow a phrase of Waugh’s — the “dead years” of television. Long-form narrative had yet to wield its powerful influence on the medium. In 1982 American viewers had a choice between the sensuous exploration of love, fidelity and money that “Brideshead” provided and “The Facts of Life” (or “One Day at a Time” or “T. J. Hooker”). Like the budding food revolution, it was a gateway to new kinds of consumed sophistication — the beginning of something, and the end.