Charles Ryder (Goode) is off to Oxford in the early 20s. His father, a strange fellow, seems only too glad to have him out of the house. As soon as Charles arrives at the University, he makes the acquaintance of Sebastian (Ben Whishaw, "I'm Not There", "Perfume"), the flamboyantly and openly gay son of a rich Catholic family. Sebastian is attracted to Charles and wants to do everything he can to keep Charles in his company, so he invites him to his family home, a palatial country home called Brideshead. They arrive for a short visit only to scurry away as soon as Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) and his sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell, "Cassandra's Dream") arrive for a charity function. During the summer break, Sebastian summons Charles to visit at Brideshead and he soon meets the entire family. Despite Charles' attraction to Sebastian, he also finds Julia very bewitching and starts to fall in love with her as well. Lady Marchmain is a devout Catholic and really drives this point home, trying to get Sebastian to change his ways. A fateful trip to Venice, to visit Sebastian and Julia's father, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), who lives there with his new companion, Cora (Greta Scacchi), brings all of these feelings to the surface. When they return to England, everything becomes more complicated.
It is almost as though director Julian Jarrold is copying the work of James Ivory, because "Brideshead" is exactly the type of film Merchant - Ivory became famous for. Maybe this is the case, because Jarrold's previous films include "Kinky Boots" and "Becoming Jane" and you have to wonder where the skill to make this new film came from. In "Brideshead", he takes a classic British work, adds good and great actors and keeps the emotions slightly aloof. Just like James Ivory would do.
Emma Thompson returns to the big screen in her first major drama in a while. And it is a welcome treat to see an actress of this caliber again. It's been too long, Emma, too long. "Nanny McPhee" was good, but this is the type of film you belong in. As Lady Marchmain, Thompson shows us every layer of the woman's life, her history, her upbringing and all of the inherent conflicts these various elements entail. It quickly becomes clear that Lady Marchmain has very different relationships with each of her children, and that these relationships are colored by how successfully they have embraced the family religion. Marchmain is a devout Catholic and tries to get each of her children to live as a respectable member of this religion and their society. Depending on their success, she embraces each of them differently. She doesn't give up on Sebastian, even though you get a sense she realizes the hopelessness of him. But this drives her son mad and makes his life a little like hell. Her daughter, Julia, is a handful, but Marchmain is able to set her on the straight and narrow, at least for a while, with a simple disapproving glance. It is no wonder these two children are so eager to escape, and become their own people, only to be constantly drawn back into her fold.
The beauty of Thompson's performance is that so much of it comes from a simple glance, or a disapproving frown. She gives the character so much more depth and reveals so much without dialogue. Of course, there are moments when Lady Marchmain addresses Charles, or one of her children, and you have no doubt this is a forceful woman, the matriarch of a large, powerful, aristocratic family.
Throughout the film, Thompson gives us a window into the conflicts that are Marchmain's life. A devout Catholic, she has a gay son. A devout Catholic, she has a daughter who sleeps around. A devout Catholic, her husband lives in Venice with his mistress. These things tear away at her and you see an inherent sadness, heavy eyes and Marchmain appears to be beaten down, because she is trying so hard to be a good Catholic. Then, when she talks to Sebastian, it is clear she will always be in control of her son's life.
Matthew Goode is a rising star in film and has created an impressive array of work. Playing Jonathan Rhys-Myers rich friend in Woody Allen's "Matchpoint", he followed that breakthrough role with his portrayal of bank robber Gary Spargo is Scott Frank's near-classic "The Lookout". What is even more interesting about these two performances is how different they are from one another. In "Matchpoint", he plays a well-heeled young gentleman living in British society. In "The Lookout", he is a scheming, low-life American bank robber. Even better, he is utterly convincing in both. In "Brideshead", he returns to a British role, but Charles Ryder is a bit middle-class. When he arrives in Oxford, he doesn't quite fit in and has to deal with the boring instructions of his sponsor; don't fraternize with them, you should always wear a coat to this and your tweeds to that. So when he meets Sebastian, he seems to come alive, excited at the possibilities.
Goode shows us Charles soaks everything in, picking up the details of how to act around the better class of society. And we also watch as Charles experiments, trying all sorts of new things on for size. These include falling in love with a man. Then a woman. Who steals his heart.
Initially, Charles is drawn to the excess of this new world, a world he has never had access to. When Sebastian befriends him, he jumps into the relationship and everything it entails and becomes drawn in by the people, the surroundings, the lifestyle, everything. He isn't involved in the relationships because he wants access to the riches this type of life affords. He is involved because everything is new and exciting to him. Then he falls in love.
Ben Whishaw is good, but a bit obvious as Sebastian. Unlike Thompson and Goode, Whishaw's performance is good but all on the surface. So he is obviously gay. When his mother chastises him, he is repentant. When he is jilted, he becomes emotionally distressed. When he becomes alcoholic, he looks like an alcoholic. The performance is good, and services the story well, but it not subtle and detracts from the quality of the film. Since his performance is the lynchpin between so many others, it would be a better performance if it were more consistent with the others.
Hayley Atwell, who co-starred in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream" playing Ewan McGregor's love interest, is good as Julia. She manages to convey some of the mystery of her feelings towards her mother, towards her religion and towards Charles and Sebastian. She comes closest to a performance echoing Thompson's, revealing little things as the story progresses, and making her character more interesting. Because the performance isn't as obvious as some others, it seems more natural and believable.
The story jumps around a bit and we finally catch up with everyone in the late 30s. As in most dramas, no one ends up with whom they should be with, so when we remeet Charles and Julia, they seem to finally believe they have a chance for the happiness they lost many years ago. Like the twenty year olds they used to be, they rush back to Brideshead to set everything right, but circumstances change even that notion.
"Brideshead" is similar in ways to "Atonement", yet very different, so comparisons are both necessary and difficult to make. "Atonement", last year's entry in this 'genre' (the 'Jane Austen-Merchant-Ivory-Historical British Unrequited Love' genre) was much more emotional and involving. But in a way, it is almost better that "Brideshead" isn't like this. Given one of the film's themes is the difference between Charles and the Flyte family, the difference between the middle and the upper classes, it would be unlikely to see a lot of emotion flying around. In "Atonement", they got around this because Keira Knightley's character renounces her family and name, making her emotion possible, giving us a license for waterworks. In "Brideshead", this is the problem for Charles; even though he falls in love with both Sebastian and Julia, they are unable to completely reciprocate for a number of reasons, leading him to frustration. In "Brideshead", the emotion is more hinted at. Despite a kiss between Charles and Sebastian, we never see them consummate their relationship. But there are hints. Later, as he dates Julia, there are hints and a brief lovemaking scene in which they are both clothed. Ultimately, the emotion in "Brideshead" is more restrained and while this provides less of an emotional impact, it is very fitting for the subject matter.
The film is also beautiful to look at. The early scenes at Oxford capture life in England like we imagine it must have happened; everyone wearing fancy clothes, heavy clothes, riding bikes, walking through the beautiful campus. And as Charles gets his first glimpse of the immense Brideshead estate, we too fall in love. It looks as though it might rival Versailles, the house is large and the grounds are extensive. It is easy to see why he falls in love with the whole idea of becoming part of this group, this class of society.
"Brideshead Revisited" is a very good film.