Brideshead revisited is the most dishonest film I have seen for a long time. The panning it has received by other critics despite its pretty scenery gives me hope for our culture
I will declare my own religious position first: I am not a Catholic and regard myself as a non-denominational Christian. Having said that, let me turn to the overarching fault of the film: it traduces the intentions of author Evelyn Waugh.
Waugh believed faith, specifically Catholicism, apart from offering Eternal Salvation, was the only solution, admittedly sometimes a hard and difficult one, to the agonies of being human in a Fallen world. In the film, however, Catholicism and faith in the wider sense are portrayed not as the solution but the problem.
A major theme of the book is that, by the workings of Divine Grace, Salvation is offered to all, including in this case even such improbable subjects as the unlovely idle rich family of Marchmain and the cynical, unbelieving, fashionably-fraudulent artist Charles Ryder who narrates the story. There is almost nothing of this in the film.
While the deathbed return to faith of Lord Marchmain is the obvious climax of the book, the second, and in its way more moving, culmination is the revelation on the last pages that Ryder, as a hard-bitten, middle-aged army Captain in the grey, desolate world of 1944, now also kneels and prays in the chapel where the altar-lamp is “burning anew among the old stones.”
In the film there is no hint of Ryder’s final conversion, except that, when he enters the chapel where a candle is burning, he refrains, apparently on second thoughts, from pinching it out, perhaps for no more spiritual reason than because he doesn’t want to burn his fingers. Big deal! one might say. He then fades away without a word, unlike the book in which the sadness of the preceding story is set aside by the final consoling soliloquy and affirmation of Faith.
Ryder’s introductions to the practical worldly goodness of Catholicism – the monk at the Moroccan hospital and the work done by Cordelia for refugees – do not feature.
All this adds up to a radical distortion of the author’s intentions: the work of one of the greatest Catholic novelists of the 20th Century has been turned into something very close to being an anti-Catholic tract.
Both Catholics and non-Catholics have some good lines in the book and the 1981 TV adaptation, but none in the film: instead of eloquent dialogue there is waffle and pseudo-mysticism. “Guilt” is evoked as a major theme, which again is not exactly the case in the book. The script-writers seem compelled to try to improve on Evelyn Waugh’s lines, a bad as well as an impudent idea.
In the fine TV adaptation, which followed the book faithfully, Claire Bloom was a charming, subtle monster as the controlling, possessive Lady Marchmain. In the film, reflecting its general artistic crudity, Emma Thompson, looking well past her use-by date as a charmer and with a gruesome parody of an upper-class accent, is a crude monster, and her control-freakery is seen as emanating entirely from Catholicism.
Her son Sebastian is shown as driven to alcoholism by religious guilt implanted by his mother and by thwarted homosexual love for Charles Ryder after Charles shows he prefers Sebastian’s sister Julia.
Neither of these themes is to be found in the book. In that Sebastian’s problem was that after his Arcadian childhood, he was unable to face being adult, maimed by having no dignity or will-power, a quite different matter.
Unlike the TV series, he comes across as rodent-like rather than tragic, and there is nothing to suggest why Charles should have liked him anyway. Whether there was a sexual relationship between Charles and Sebastian at all is not spelt out in the book.
The catalyst of Sebastian’s final worldly ruin in the book, the death of the German Kurt in a concentration camp, is not mentioned at all, and his final apparently incongruous finding of salvation and peace as a humble porter is glossed over in a line.
Further, it is reported that he is a porter, not, as in the book, in a monastery, but in a hospital. In the book, Sebastian’s life in the monastery and the kindness of the monks in taking him in, when there is literally no refuge in the world for him, is described in detail – the Abbott, a “grim old Dutchman” from an African mission, recognises holiness in him. The different word is significant in the context, and the only reason the word was changed can have been to denigrate the idea of the church in general.
Anthony Blanche, an important character, is seen only in a couple of brief and virtually pointless scenes. Perhaps because of the advances political correctness has made since 1981, he is hardly the cynical, outrageously kamp, witty and perceptive commentator on the follies of the others which made him a star of the TV series, nor is he shown in his last decline when the inadequacies of his wit, cynicism and perception are shown in a pitiless light.
Ryder’s character is also distorted. He is not intended in the book to be a ruthless social-climber overcome by the glamour and wealth of the upper class. He is seduced by a more subtle numen. His father has a large London house with servants, he is perfectly schooled in correct behaviour and dress when moving in high circles.
Unlike, say, Patrick Dennis’s Tony, he would never commit a faux pas at a house-party, or try too hard to impress, and though not in the Marchmains’ league of wealth is one of the upper middle-class at least.
There is no trace of the theme which occurs not only in Brideshead but in probably all Waugh’s major novels: that as a result of the Reformation the English upper classes, divorced from an authentic fons, gradually over the centuries lost their purpose (with the degenerate aristocracy of the Bollinger Club in Decline and Fall, and the noblemen of ancient and sonorous title working as gossip-columnists in Vile Bodies).
It was probably impossible to compress as long, complex and subtle a book as Brideshead Revisited into a single film. A better course of action would have been not to have tried. Go back to the book or the TV series.