Positive Light on 2008 Brideshead Film

Several recent articles have reconsidered the much-maligned 2008 film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in a relatively more positive light:

–In a essay published in TLS earlier this month, Mikaella Clements writes about the theme of the “bath in twentieth century literature”. She concludes that in many cases “baths were troublesome. They were prone to intrusion and disorder. They were too hot, too small, too crowded with litanies of junk: newspapers, cigarettes, alcohol, razors.” After working her way through examples in fiction of Willa Cather, J D Salinger and James Baldwin, she arrives at one from a Waugh novel:

Baths are transformative or transportative, as though they might stroll away on their own claw-footed legs. It is so in the middle third of Brideshead Revisited, when everything has already started to go wrong and we find out that Sebastian and Charles share “what had once been a dressing-room and had been changed to a bathroom twenty years back by the substitution for the bed of a deep, copper, mahogany-framed bath”. The ghost of that bed in an otherwise ornate, old-fashioned bathroom, with its “water colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair”, haunts the scene. By this point in the novel, the playful, loving, homoerotic undertones in Charles and Sebastian’s relationship have given way to distrust and switching alliances. The men are no longer simply best friends, and where earlier they might have larked splashing in the fountain together, the shared bathroom seems somehow darker, a more complicated, adult arrangement. Seen through the steam, the bath that Sebastian and Charles take turns in blurs with its old form, a bed that we can’t quite catch them in at the same time.

The story is headed with a still from the 2008 film showing Ben Whishaw as Sebastian, reclining in a bathtub and holding a cigarette.

–The website Culture Trip reviews films set in Venice, which it considers one of the most cinematic cities in the world, and selects a list of ten that reflect its darker side.  Among these is the 2008 version of Brideshead:

A dissolute aristocrat finds solace and refuge in Venice, before embracing the darker side of the city, in Julian Jarrold’s adaptation of the novel by Evelyn Waugh. This typical Venetian tale is told with class and wit in Jarrold’s film, as the middle-class Charles Ryder travels to Venice with his aristocratic friend Sebastian Flyte, played by Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw, respectively. Newfound freedom is followed by deep betrayal in the city. Waugh’s story of lost youth and disappointed expectations has been adapted several times, perhaps most successfully by Granada Television in 1981, and this most recent film adaptation is a more ostentatious take on Waugh’s tale of decadence and failed dreams.

Other films on the list are Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice, Nicholas Roeg’s haunting Don’t Look Now (1971) and Al Pacino’s memorable 1974 film version of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

The 2008 film also received a recent bit of additional celebrity not related to its Venetian setting. Its US distributor was Miramax films, then being run by Harvey Weinstein. He made a visit to the set in 2007 which was described in recent press reports relating some memories of Emma Thompson. See previous posts.

BBCAmerica’s website recommends several films with British country-house settings that could provide enjoyable viewing while one awaits the premiere of the film version of Downton Abbey later this week:

Evelyn Waugh‘s classic novel was famously adapted into a 1981 TV miniseries which won Emmy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards. This 2008 movie adaptation wasn’t quite as acclaimed, but it’s still worth watching for its sumptuous production values and fabulous cast. Ben Whishaw plays Charles Ryder, a middle-class student at the University of Oxford who becomes attracted to two members of the same aristocratic family, Lord Sebastian Flyte (Downton‘s Matthew Goode) and his sister Lady Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell). Ryder is also dazzled by their stunning home, Brideshead Castle, where he meets their formidable and sometimes disapproving mother, Lady Marchmain (Dame Emma Thompson). Brideshead Revisited isn’t an all-time classic period movie, but it’s perhaps a little underrated.

They’ve got the roles of Goode and Whishaw reversed.

–Finally, the Oprah Magazine makes the same point as BBCAmerica but recommends reading the book rather than watching the film while waiting for Downton Abbey. They mention the 2008 film as well:

Brideshead Revisited unfolds through the perspective of Charles Ryder, a British officer infatuated with the Marchmains, an upper-class Roman Catholic English family, and their orb of privilege.

His character is perfect for Matthew Goode to bring to the screen, which he does in Brideshead Revisited, the film. Aptly, the actor is also a member of the cast of Downton Abbey, the film.


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