Thursday, 10 March 2011

Brideshead Revisisted, the film

In November of last year I spent a week rereading Brideshead Revisited and watching DVD’s of the original Television series after going to see the two hour film version. In several pieces I attempted to describe each of the three works and to the extent to which the film and the TV communicated the original novel by Evelyn Waugh. On Saturday while was I returning from the Carmen in 3D experience I recorded a showing of the film using my Sky Box and today seemed appropriate to view again the magic of life at Oxford University and my one short visit to Venice.

The film provides an overview of the story, dipping in and out, providing only glimpses of life as an undergraduate with no intent or ambitions for the academic life which I disapproved yet found fascinating. The story is that of Charles Ryder who lives with his father in a comfortable upper middle class house close to Paddington station. His father is of independent means with his own limited circle of friends while Charles appears to have acquired no circle from childhood and boarding school and cannot wait for any opportunity to escape from distant and meaningless communication with his father.

At Oxford his serious cousin warns against his allocation of a room in college in the front quadrangle on the ground floor and this is quickly borne out when Lord Sebastian Flyte is sick into his room from beyond a window having been out drinking with his aristocratic chums from Eton and a camp South American with a slight speech impediment who appears to have been the object of Sebastian’s attentions until he resolves to make amends to Charles by inviting him to an arranged luncheon in his college rooms and taking him up. The film is more blatant about the nature of the love which develops between Sebastian and Charles, something which is picked upon by those closest to Sebastian, particularly his devout Catholic and controlling mother, Lady Marchmain played in the film by the always excellent Emma Thompson.

She quickly sees Charles, for what he is, an ambitious social climber who falls in love first with the family country house and then the eldest daughter, Julia, whereas Sebastian torn between his love of life and Charles and the controlling Catholicism of his mother wants to keep Charles to himself and away from his family. Sebastian insists they drive immediately back to Oxford on the first visit Charles makes to Brideshead where he is introduced to Nanny and also the family chapel when he learns that Julia and her mother are also returning.

Having established a relationship over their first year, Charles is something at a loss when he returns home for the long summer vacation and jumps at the opportunity to visit and stay at Brideshead on receipt of a telegram from Sebastian saying he has been in an accident which proves to be only a damaged bone in his foot playing croquet. Julia is sent to collect Charles from the railway station before going off again on her social outings her mother has arranged after being presented at Court bur where suitor are carefully selected among Catholic families of devotion and wealth.

To understand Brideshead the book and the original TV series it is necessary to understand the perspective of the Marchmain’s aristocratic Catholicism, the gradations of class and the sexual norms and taboos of the era in which the book was written, between the two World Wars. Lady Marchmain’s puritanical religion has driven her life loving husband into the arms of a worldly Italian and the mist hedonistic of Italian cities, along with Rio and New Orleans, then Berlin as well as Paris. He is played by Michael Gambon whose performance is on a par with that of Olivier in the TV series.

Lady Marchmain initially sees Charles as a responsible young man devoted to her son, so she encourages the relationship recommending that he accompanies him and her eldest daughter when they want to accept the invitation from their father to holiday with him in Venice. She does this despite the insistence of Charles that he is an atheist and not an agnostic. In Venice two things happen, he learns from a conversation with Marchmain’s mistress of the difference between British Catholicism which was then alleviating and uncompromising while the Italians live as they wish and then confess their sins periodically, do the required penance and continue as before. He also wants Julia and mistakes a moment of passion during carnival as the start of an ongoing relationship leading to marriage. On return Lady Marchmain attempts to cut Charles from the lives of her children. This includes young Cordelia who is fascinated by the atheism of Charles and hopes to convert him. She is destined for a nunnery although the eldest son and heir is beyond influence, aware of his responsibilities, social position, need to maintain the estate which includes a London House. His faith is true and unshakeable. So as to reinforce the separation Lady Marchmain announces the engagement of Julia to an American of property, who converts to Catholicism while Sebastian embarrasses the party by expressing his grief at the betrayal of his love for Charles by Charles’s ambitions for his sister.

Charles is disappointed that Sebastian does not take up with him again when they return to Oxford, especially on finding that his friend is escaping more into alcohol to escape the attentions of a Catholic minder appointed by his mother.

After the separation Sebastian heads for Morocco no doubt via Gibraltar where he lives as a subject to a dominant, and Charles is sent by terminally ill Lady Marchmain to find her son and bring him home. Unfortunately he is also terminally ill and mother and son are not reconciled.

Charles becomes successful as a painter and is courted and then marries by the sister of one Sebastian’s aristocratic Eton and Oxford chums. He then travels alone to South America to live and paint for two years and his wife joins him on board the Atlantic crossing back from New York. She takes to her bed with sea sickness while Charles encounters Julia, who is estranged from her husband who has taken up control and residence at Brideshead having bailed out the financially struggling elder brother. The two become lovers and live together although this is a problem for the Catholicism of Julia, reinforced when they go to Brideshead to see her husband and seek his agreement for a divorce. He agrees for the price of two of Charles’s paintings, something which shocks Julia but more significantly is the attitude of her elder brother, who announces he is to marry a widow with children, someone who will not be able to accept Julia because of her adultery.

Her father returns to the family home when he becomes seriously ill and on his death bed, the lifelong disbeliever, regains his faith and accepts the last rites of his church. This has a profound affect on Julia who decides that she cannot marry or continue to live with Charles.

The films opens with Charles an Officer in the British Army in World War 2 awaiting to go to France as part of the D Day offensive. His regiment is stationed at Brideshead with the House the headquarters, and he visits the chapel where he was taken on his first visit and after the first meal with the family, Lady Marchmain insisting. Charles learns that the elder brother was killed in the Blitz and that Julia is alive and an army reservist. In the chapel he lights a candle after dipping his hands in Holy Water and anointing himself. He leaves the candle alight when he leaves after first moving to extinguish.

I was not surprised that the film failed to excite critics or the box office. After all it depicts a lifestyle which only has appeal to those decreasing few within British society who are aristocratic or are socially ambitious and having something to offer. He film is no more than a pictorial aide memoiré to the book and the TV series, although the photography is brilliant, the mood creating effective and the acting of high class. The film will lack appeal to the average weekend audience and will displease those who know the originals, but who cares, not I?

All three, the book, the TV series and the film remain important to me for several reasons. The relationship which I once had with a young woman from a wealthy and socially connected Jewess, whose mother counselled against a serious relationship with me. She was not the first to wisely do so. Secondly my own wrestles with Catholicism and relationship with my mother. But most of all because of my experience of being a student and then living and working In Oxford and Oxfordshire which commenced 50 years ago last autumn and that one brief visit to Venice as experiences of London life at all levels of society. It was a great day.

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