Director Julian Jarrold’s lavish period piece Brideshead Revisited trots the globe like a genteel James Bond adventure, visiting London, Venice, and Morocco, but especially the opulent Castle Howard. From the perspective of an ignoramus that hasn’t read Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, this compressed version of what I imagine to be a grander prose narrative doesn’t much fit the traditional structure of a feature-length movie. For instance, a major character disappears halfway through, and the internal contradiction of another’s stunted emotional life versus his grasping desires is not a very cinematic subject.
The voraciously ambitious Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is the only child of a bitter, sarcastic, widowed father. He leaves his emotionally stifling home behind to study history at Oxford. His true aspirations are to be a painter, even though the chilly atheist does not seem to posses the rich emotional life of an artist. His middle-class London fashions divide him from his new upper-class peers, but from his first arrival on campus, he feels immediately drawn to the “sodomites.” As we learn more about Charles, we see that he does not so much share their sexuality as he is fascinated by their outwardly dramatic, emotionally honest natures, and considerable wealth – none of which he posesses. Curiously, Goode’s most recent screen appearance is as the similarly emotionless and sexually ambiguous Ozymandias in Watchmen.
One among Charles’ new friends is equally hungry to attach himself to him in return. The alcoholic, infantile Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) has more love for his teddy bear and housekeeper than for his extremely Roman Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, whose role is not much more than a cameo, despite being featured front and center in the poster). Charles is awestruck by the wealth and opulence of Sebastian’s vast family estate Brideshead. As they pass through the chapel, the staunchly atheist Charles mimics his host and genuflects. Sebastian upbraids him, for not only is he from another social class altogether, worse, he is not Catholic. Charles first exposes the essential nature of his character when he replies that he was “just trying to fit in.”
But just as Charles’ cold home was defined by an unloving patriarch, Brideshead is blanketed by Lady Marchmain’s oppressive miasma of Catholic guilt. Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) escaped by decamping to Venice, where Catholics are a bit more liberal: they live their lives as they wish, and simply confess their sins away when necessary. At first, it seems only Lord Marchmain’s mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi) understands the situation: this homosexual dalliance is just a phase for Charles, but Sebastian is truly in love with him.
We later learn that Lady Marchmain, whom one might assume would be blinkered by her pious faith, is fully aware of her son’s pain. She also gives an even more astute analysis of what drives Charles to attach himself to the family: “You’re so desperate to be liked, Charles.”
Charles is able to psychoanalyze himself in the end: “did I want too much?” All his actions are driven by desire: for the affections of the Oxford gay clique, to reside in Brideshead, to marry Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and to be praised by high society as a painter. But Charles is icily detached, with a notable lack of emotion and empathy. He calmly divorces his wife offscreen, in order to marry Julia and become lord of Brideshead.
But as her family gives the sacrament of last rites to Lord Marchmain against his wishes, she perceives a miracle as he relents and reaccepts his faith in his final moments. Her own faith is rekindled and she rejects Charles. In the end, his actions have marked the final generation of the family, and that the desirous manse will be left to no one.