This is more of a preview of “Brideshead Revisited” than a review, as the movie does not open in the USA until 1st August and in Britain in October. Evelyn Waugh’s novel on which the film is based is one of the towering achievements of twentieth century literature. Published in 1945, just as the Second World War was drawing to an end, Brideshead is a classic fin de siècle story in which the “between the war” years are portrayed as the last period during which the old order in English society still existed. This old order, with its sharp divide between the aristocracy and the rest could not, in Evelyn Waugh’s then view, possibly survive the traumas of the war and its aftermath. “Brideshead” the vast mansion that is the seat of the Marchmain family, is a symbol of stability and order but it is degraded by the presence of British Army troops and threatened by the march of socialism and the triumph of the middle classes.  

Although, at less than 300 pages, Brideshead Revisited is not a particularly long novel its scope is wide and its sentiments run very deep. There is hardly a wasted word nor a superfluous character nor a redundant incident in the book. This is why, I think, when Granada Television came to portray Brideshead on the screen in their seminal 1981 series it lasted eleven episodes and just short of eleven hours. The scene-setting opening episode, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, is itself of feature film length. Although nominally the script of the TV series was by John Mortimer in fact little of his original remained when the production got underway. The producer and director returned to Waugh’s original and virtually all of the dialogue, including Ryder’s bridging commentary, is exactly as Waugh wrote it in the novel. The casting was inspired and Jeremy Irons (Charles Ryder), Anthony Andrews (Sebastian Flyte), Laurence Olivier (Lord Marchmain) and the rest will always be in the minds eye as impersonating the characters to perfection.

So if Brideshead has already been perfectly transformed into a TV series why make a movie at all? Leaving aside the commercial imperative one can perhaps see that a hyped up movie, with excellent actors in it (Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, and Ben Whishaw amongst many others) might bring some new readers to the book (or viewers to the TV series) who might otherwise have missed them. I hope that it does for they will not be disappointed. But at 135 minutes in length the movie will be so compressed that important elements of the story must have been omitted and the worry is that the subtlety and nuances of Waugh’s masterpiece will be entirely missed. There is also the concern that homo-erotic nature of the relationship between Sebastian and Charles will be overplayed and that would be travesty. Brideshead Revisited is emphatically not a “gay novel” and to suggest that a central premise of the work is a homosexual one would be just plain wrong.  

But we must wait and see. Hollywood is quite capable of making fine movies of classic novels, reinterpreting a work for a modern audience without losing the central theme of the novelist’s work – the most recent and excellent film of “Pride an Prejudice” was a case in point. But for many of us Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is such a work of genius that we would not wish anything to be changed and nothing to be omitted. We will inevitably be disappointed, as this will have been impossible. But if a valid and interesting new light on the novel is shone by Julian Jarrold’s film and Andrew Davies’s screenplay then the making of the film will have been worthwhile. If not it will have been a waste of time and will offend all of us who love the original.

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