Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Brideshead Repackaged

When the mammoth miniseries Brideshead Revisited premiered in the UK in late 1981, it's said that, across the nation, the chic younger set were showing up in trendy nightclubs carrying teddy bears. Nothing quite so precious happened in the states when the series was broadcast on Great Performances; university students were unlikely to be viewing anything on PBS in large numbers, much less this languid adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 20th century classic. I was out of college by then, and when American TV critics started to single out the show as the finest series ever to be shown on television, I tuned in. (I won't necessarily concur that it's the Best Thing Ever On TV; perhaps later in these pages, I'll go on and on about my personal favorites. But surely Brideshead Revisited is in my top 5-10...).

A slimmed-down movie version of the story has recently hit the theaters, and I popped 'round to see it last week. There are many, many differences between the two, all of which have been commented upon by just about everybody. Though the original tale places Charles Ryder at its core, the film's dominating force is Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain. One need only view this ad for the flick to tell exactly whom the movie believes is the center of this story of doomed romance, and the affect of Catholicism on an aristocratic family. I love Emma Thompson, who doesn't? I was privileged to see her onstage in LA when she was brought to town by her then-husband, Kenneth Branaugh, to star in A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear. She stole the former as Helena, and was completely unrecognizable in the latter, playing the King's Fool. The range of this woman is indescribable.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.

The original Brideshead made an international star of Jeremy Irons, playing the leading role of Charles Ryder, the outsider mixing it up with various members of the aristocratic Flyte family. The series should have made an international star of Anthony Andrews, too, but it didn't. I can't imagine why, other than to suppose that audiences were uncomfortable with his role as Sebastian, an alcoholic hedonist whose homosexuality clashes with his Catholic upbringing and causes his ruin. I for one could not take my eyes off this beautiful young man's performance, and when his character dropped out of the series about mid-way through, I found it difficult to keep my interest peaked. As Sebastian faded away in Charles's life, his sister Julia became the central antagonist, and I remember thinking, when the hell is Sebastian going to reappear?

The original miniseries was blessed with spectacular players all around, but its supporting cast was dominated by three world-class actors. Claire Bloom, playing the role currently being played by Emma Thompson, chose a much more subtle approach to this matriarchal monster. She created a loving, caring mother who, with nary a raised voice or eyebrow, kept her children subjugated to the strict Catholicism which was a central tone of the story. I admit that I preferred Bloom's characterization to the more brittle performance of Thompson in the film.

In the film version, Michael Gambon plays her estranged husband Lord Marchmain. In this instance, I preferred the movie's actor to the series's. Gambon has had a long and distinguished career, but cannot be considered a major movie star. He is a major actor, however, and his performance seemed pitch perfect to me. His job wasn't an easy one, I'm sure, for his predecessor in the TV series was Laurence Olivier, in one of his final roles. I never get tired of watching Olivier, even as I never forget that I am, in fact, watching Olivier. I almost never forget that I'm watching that terrific actor. But with Gambon, I was watching the character.

Olivier won the Emmy award for his performance, but I think the stronger work was being done by his contemporary John Gielgud, in the smaller role of Edward Ryder. His performance as the disengaged, distant father of the main character was for me a highlight of the series. Gielgud's brief scenes with Irons are hilarious, comic gems, and remain some of the best of his long career.

As for the current film, well, comparisons are odious, aren't they? How fair is it to compare a 14 hour series with a two and a half hour movie? Out of necessity, Charles's infatuations with first Sebastian, then his sister Julia, are condensed into the same time frame, turning the relationship into a more traditional romantic triangle. I don't have a problem with that. Neither do I have trouble with the lack of focus on the Oxford years or the other members of the Flyte family. Something's gotta give.

In the central role of Charles Ryder, Matthew Goode is a dead ringer for his predecessor Jeremy Irons. His understated work is a strong counterpoint to the flamboyant presence of Ben Whishaw as Sebastian. Whishaw's performance is much more effeminate than his predecessor's, but I think it worked quite well. It is the film's only performance which stopped my mind from making ongoing comparisons with the miniseries, and erased all thoughts of Anthony Andrews's previous interpretation.

Though Brideshead the miniseries remains near the top of many people's hit lists, the film is unlikely to make the same claim. But I enjoyed the movie immensely, and if you're interested in Waugh between the Wars, and can divorce the film from the series, it's worth the effort to revisit Brideshead.