The palatial estate sits languid against the landscape, the massive family home looking as much like a museum as a manor. Within its walls are secrets kept silent for far too many years, a lineage forged in lies, deception, and an unflappable faith in God. For the Flytes, Brideshead reflects their own insular existence -- self contained, complete with its own ornate chapel and religious iconography. But for anyone outside the clan, such opulence shields wealth of a different, disturbing kind. And should one revisit the famed locale, they too will find themselves lost in its amoral allure.
When we first meet middle class student Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), he is leaving his distant father for Oxford. Instantly, he is thrust into a world of privilege, and the seedy sphere of influence surrounding fey fop Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). Over the course of the school year, they become inseparable in ways that suggest something other than simple companionship. Fate finds the pair spending the summer at Sebastian's family home, known as Brideshead. There, Charles meets two women who will figure prominently in his future -- the staunchly Catholic matriarch Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) and Sebastian's glamorous sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). Over the next few years, everything about Brideshead, from the people to the place itself, will haunt Charles' attempt to forge an identity for himself, as well as guide what he really wants out of life.
Handsomely helmed by Kinky Boots/Becoming Jane director Julian Jarrold and expertly condensing Evelyn Waugh's classic novel, Brideshead Revisited is Merchant/Ivory with a fastidious political viewpoint. Leaning left on everything from homosexuality to the interfering influence of religion, while still distilling British class society into its horrid haves and equally spineless have-nots, this is a period piece as partial propaganda. Waugh made no bones about his attempted social commentary, and Brideshead remains one of his harshest denouncements. Jarrold merely ups the criticism, making it clear what side of the scandals his and his film's philosophies lay.
At its core, this big screen adaptation (a million miles away in theme and plot points from its famed 11-hour mini series cousin circa 1981) focuses on blind faith -- in love, in God, in money and its power, in humanity and all its frailties. Jarrold, along with screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, never lets us forget that, inside the imposing mansion with its statuary and classic canvases, rests an equally antiquated (and rotting) notion of interpersonal relationships. No matter the parameters -- Charles and Sebastian, the Flyte children and their domineering mother/ultra-lenient father, Lady Marchmain and the rest of the world -- honor and unreasonable conviction replace love and lust as proper emotional responses.
The cast clearly shines within these confines, standouts being Whishaw as the particularly pained Sebastian, so weak of will and physicality that you're convinced a stiff breeze would break him in half. It's a knockout turn by the actor, especially when slotted against Old Vic wonders like Thompson (wonderfully bitchy as Mother Marchmain) and Michael Gambon (as the disgraced Lord patriarch in exile). Guiding us through all of this is Goode, his open faced Everyman slowly giving way to a selfishness all his own. The amazing thing about Brideshead Revisited, outside of its stunning set design and meticulous direction, is how gullible we find ourselves inside these posh and polite surroundings. Once the characters' true motives start showing through, we are shocked at how dramatic (and unexpected) they are.
It's all part of this film's unfathomable charms. Most audiences would see an English countryside accented with a castle-like keep and stiff swells and assume they know the story from rote. Granted, Brideshead Revisited does initially feel like a journey we've made before. But thanks to the utter talent of everyone in front of and behind the lens, we wind up seeing the circumstances through fresh, and very satisfied eyes.
That must be why they call it Brideshead.