August 6, 2008




"Brideshead Revisited" is one of the most Catholic movies I've ever seen. Not just because a Catholic aristocratic family is at its center with a cornucopia of Catholic images and vocabulary, but because of the way Catholicism matters, as it bumps up against the biggest vagaries of life and delivers some big answers. Charles (Matthew Goode), a non-aristocrat, enters into a relationship with every member of the eccentric  family who live at the majestic Brideshead manor. He is introduced into the inner circle by the son, Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a fellow student at Oxford with whom he begins a homosexual relationship. The teddy-bear-toting Sebastian is thoroughly miserable due in part to his completely overbearing, hyper-religious "Mummy" (Emma Thompson). But Sebastian is also the wisdom figure who is not deluded by life, who goes on to become a hero—the only one willing to break free of family, wealth, privilege, and "destiny" to find true Happiness.

"Brideshead" requires some familiarity with the inner workings of Catholic spirituality in general and early twentieth-century British Catholicism in particular. In filmmaking lingo, it "cuts deep" into the world of its characters. It's up to us, the audience, to do our homework if we want to take full advantage of the story. Without this prior knowledge, the jokes could seem like cheap potshots at the Faith (they're not: Evelyn Waugh--who wrote the novel that BR is based on--was a convert to Catholicism), and the portrayal of the family's religiosity could seem like a condemnation of hypocrisy and superstition. Waugh, like a good writer, stares the tragicomic truth in the face and lets no one off the hook.  As Dorothy Day said: "I converted with my eyes wide open." (Perhaps the most uncluttered Catholic character in BR is the happy-to -the-point-of-annoying Irish priest at Papa's bedside, trying to help him make a "beautiful death.") The filmmakers seamlessly capture Waugh's profound and satirical sense of humor which is so subtle that it mischievously echoes long after the credits roll. They also marvelously "get" Waugh's voice and don't just squeeze it into a droll, established formula. Either they are geniuses or Waugh is imminently adaptable to the screen!

As British as Waugh was (check his bio), I find him free of the usual British cynicism. (None can be as cruel as the British when it comes to lampooning the sacred.) Perhaps because, for him, Christianity was the only alternative to "chaos." Like his contemporary, Aldous Huxley ("Brave New World"), Waugh peered into the "post-Christian" future and shuddered.

How does Catholicism matter in BR? In the marriage covenant. Some really tough, heart-breaking choices need to be made, and they are. Unlike Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair," which relies on supernatural interventions in order for characters to do the right thing in regard to marital fidelity, BR relies on the unconditional faith and hope of some extremely flawed individuals.

The emphasis on guilt and sin, so prevalent in a pre-Vatican II milieu, could feel off-kilter today, but Waugh may be holding up a mirror-opposite (our all-too-frequent response) to what Catholicism is really all about (God's love). On second thought, BR is not about sin but about the absolution of sin. What greater gift is there?

The best love stories are horizontal AND vertical, but they are very, very difficult to execute. It's also very, very difficult to portray an inner journey of faith, prayer to an unseen Being, etc., in film (although there have been some very successful attempts recently:  see "Amazing Grace"), but the semi-autobiographical BR manages quite well through its ruthless, wart-exposing frankness. Would that we could all live our lives in the constant scrutiny of God's tender light.


Purists may find the screen adaptations not to their liking--especially since the book is a beloved classic--but many of the liberties taken are in keeping with the medium and structure of a film-story.

The 11-hour BBC 1981 made-for-TV version that launched the career of Jeremy Irons, now available on DVD, seems to have kept to the book verbatim. However, in a film, with only two hours, you can't be verbatim, and in film school one is taught that books SHOULD be adapted for the screen, not just slapped up there as they are.

Every poppet, of course, is entitled to their own opinion.

Some major differences of book/movie:

(In general, in keeping with the medium of film, drama is heightened, events conflated and strategically timed, relationships are tighter/closer, stereotypes employed, circles/levels of conflict are multi-layered, and information is given by showing, not telling. To have a same-sex kiss to show that Sebastian and Charles were in a same-sex romantic relationship would be consonant with the medium of film, although not found in the book. The book makes it very clear they were in a same-sex relationship, however. Their relationship does not appear to be any kind of agenda-pushing in the film, but rather a very three-dimensional, sensitive look at a commonly-known British "tradition" in all-male schools. It is rumored that Waugh himself may have engaged in one of these dalliances. One must not run out of the cineplex at the first kiss, but stay and see how both Charles and Sebastian are redeemed.)

BOOK: Lady Marchmain (Mummy) is not such a monster as she is in the film.
MOVIE: Lady Marchmain's character is a much more imposing presence than in the book.
BOOK: Charles is not obsessed with possessing Brideshead Manor for himself, nor does he "buy" Julia.
MOVIE: Sebastian and Anthony Blanche are both gay (as in the book), but not portrayed as lovers, as in the movie.

--What does the title "Brideshead" signify? Without having done any research into the matter, I believe it's a metaphor for the Church--Virgin and Mother, soothingly divine and shockingly human.

--If we don't understand that God is the Lover and Spouse of every soul, we'll never understand what Julia means by "I can't cut myself off from His mercy." However, I'm not sure that the characters or Evelyn Waugh himself saw God this way (due to the times), however much enamored he was of the Faith. The "awful," "fearful" element is very strong.

--The "little characters" flame onto the screen fully formed and fully necessary: Nanny Hawkins, Papa's mistress, Rex—Bravo!

--The soundtrack is lush, gorgeous, Romantic and sad. SPOILER: The "sad" part was a tad misleading.

--My first introduction to Evelyn Waugh (and of course I thought he was a she) was years ago in the "Vatican II Weekday Missal" meditations. It was a quote from BR and went something like this (probably Julia speaking): "'Living in sin,' 'living in sin'—it has a terrible ring to it. You bathe it in Dial and clip diamonds to it, but you never get rid of it." And years later I have discovered a new favorite author in Evelyn Waugh! I have never been able to unreservedly warm up to Tolkien, C.S. Lewis or even Chesterton. I think it was Waugh I was looking for. He even considers his best work his novel on my patron saint, "Helena."

--Evelyn Waugh is incredibly original (without trying too hard), his characters are "writer's-agenda-free" and truer to life than any I have ever met, and he is very, very funny. You never know what the characters will say next, but it's not quirky. It's real. And it's intelligent and clever. Check out the excellent entry for EW in Wikipedia.  Don't be fooled, you've never read/seen/heard anything like Waugh. He's in a category by himself.

--Great line: "Don't be vulgar, Cordelia. Vulgar is not the same as funny." –Lady Marchmain

--Great line: "As Catholics, we have to do all in our power to save those we love from themselves." –Lord Bridley Marchmain

--Sebastian's gay friends, the atheists, the Catholic matron, ALL have their say. (And when "Mummy" stated that the only important life was the life hereafter, EVERYONE in my theater snorted. Including me. Ha ha.)

--The house, of course, is a character.

--This is Charles' story and many people tell Charles who he really is, and it's a mixed picture (Charles is a painter). Good people automatically trust him, but the wicked also recognize their own wickedness in him and his capacity for monstrous greed.

--The actress who plays Julia Flyte, Hayley Atwell, is a sweet blend of innocence and passion.

--Who is the true believer(s) in "Brideshead"?

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