In the craziness of the Comic-Con, actor Matthew Goode (who plays the Jeremy Irons' role of Charles) was there to promote the film version of the graphic novel Watchmen as well as Miramax's Brideshead Revisited . An odd combo but both are literary adaptations, just very different sorts. You can see the video of the interview I did with him over at the Hard Rock Hotel's cabana during Comic-Con. He actually talked about the different challenges presented by these two adaptations. He also admitted to a slight hesitation about doing Brideshead Revisited precisely because there had been a popular version prior to this one.
The triangle that cannot possibly last: Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell and Ben Whishaw (Miramax)
Goode plays Charles, a young man and struggling artist from a middle class family who befriends the wealthy and aristocratic Sebastian (Ben Whishaw, the serial killer from Perfume ) at school. When Sebastian takes Charles to his family home of Brideshead, Charles is in awe of the estate, which looks like a museum filled to the brim with elegant art and statuary. Charles is seduced by Brideshead and by the lifestyle that Sebastian leads. So Charles does whatever he can to remain in this world. First attaching himself to Sebastian, then falling for his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). But ruling over the family is Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) who tries to control everyone in her family as well as their friends. Charles he gets tangled up in the complex emotions and family politics. Sebastian and Julia feel suffocated by their mother's iron rule and strict Catholicism, and prefer the more relaxed attitudes of their estranged father (Michael Gambon) who lives in Italy with his mistress (a warm and wise Greta Sacchi).
Waugh's novel has been adapted by the talented duo of Jeremy Brock ( Last King of Scotland; Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown ) and Andrew Davies ( Tailor of Panama ). They begin the film with Charles as an officer in World War II and stationed at Brideshead. He has a brief opening narration that sets up the flashback that is the bulk of the film, and then the screenwriters strip away all of Waugh's narration to let the film play out in a less literary and more cinematic fashion. Their script hones in on the triangle of Charles, Sebastian, and Julia to capture the dynamics of that relationship. They manage to convey the powerful emotions that are kept in check by proper etiquette and social decorum. When emotions do swell to the surface or confrontations occur, there is always a veneer of cool politeness.
The magnificent Brideshead estate in the background and Emma Thompson's controlling Lady Marchmain front and center (Miramax)
Jarrold brings Brideshead Revisited to the screen with an elegant flair. This is smart, adult material. The period setting and emotional restraint may be off putting g to some but Jarrold finds a compelling core to his story. Goode (who scored well in Match Point and The Lookout ) maintains a somewhat aloof demeanor because he seems to be trying to figure out who he is and what he wants, and he doesn't want to give too much away. Goode's performance reveals a surface calm as Charles goes through some personal upheavals. He allows Charles to avoid labels and doesn't paint him as merely a social climber. When Charles enters Brideshead, the setting is so breathtaking and impressive that we can understand how he could be seduced by it. He also uses the setting of Venice well to show the emotional liberation the characters feel as they move from gray England and the oppressive Lady Marchmain to the warm and sunny Venice with its nighttime seductive glow. British novels frequently use Italy as a backdrop for such emotional changes and liberation but of course the problem is that these characters almost always have to return to England and it social rules.
But what gives the film its tragic core is Whishaw's performance as Sebastian. There's a delicacy and vulnerability in Whishaw that truly touches us. Thompson is formidable as Lady Marchmain but she's not a complete monster. She has a devotion to her faith that has blinded her to certain things, and for her religion proves the greater barrier than class. In her character we see religion's power to offer comfort and meaning but also its power to destroy. Atwell is good as Julia but her scenes can't compete with the intimacy of the scenes between Goode's Charles and Whishaw's Sebastian.
Brideshead Revisited (rated PG-13 for some sexual content) is sure to stir comparisons to the many Merchant Ivory literary adaptations. To some that connotes classy production values and intelligence, to others it sounds too much like a dull English lit class. But if you like good literary adaptations, this one offers some key pleasures. It is by no means as complete an adaptation as the PBS mini-series but in some ways it feels more contemporary.
Companion viewing: Brideshead Revisited (PBS series), The Lookout (for a very different Matthew Goode), Perfume (for a very different Ben Whishaw)