BECOMING JANE director Julian Jarrold turns up the temperature on Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel with an adaptation that's a fraction of the length the BBC's much-loved, 11-hour miniseries. And yet much of the material is still there: Wrap it in sumptuous costume design, unbeatable locales (the film was once again shot at the grand Castle Howard, as well as Oxford, Venice and Morocco), and Emma Thompson's unforgettable performance as a grand, Machiavellian mamma and you've got a memorable time at the movies.
Middle-class Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) arrives at Oxford With dreams of one day becoming an artist – along with more practical plans to study history -- only to be met with a few stern words of advice from his cousin Jasper (Richard Teverson): Always dress for the country, always choose a London tailor, treat your dons with casual indifference and steer clear of obvious "sodomites" like foppish Anthony Blanche (Joseph Beattie) and effete drunkard Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). That last, of course, is the rule Charles breaks after a drunken Lord Sebastian throws up into his quad-level window and, by way of apology, sends Charles flowers and an invitation to lunch. Their friendship quickly deepens and reaches a turning point when Sebastian invites his new friend to Marchmain family's impossibly grand family seat, Brideshead, to meet his beloved nanny (Rita Davies). Fearing the imminent return of his dreaded mother, the imperious Lady Marchmain (Thompson), Sebastian cuts the visit short. But by the time they leave Charles is deeply in love, not, as Sebastian might hope, with the frail young Lord, but with the stately Brideshead and all it represents: wealth, power, centuries of art and civilization and a family utterly unlike his dreary, disapproving father back in London. Charles has also learned something about Sebastian: He's a Catholic whose spiritual torment may be at the root of his obvious drinking problem. Charles returns to Brideshead for a longer stay that summer after receiving an urgent cable from Sebastian: He's hurt his poor foot and needs looking after. This time Charles meets the rest of the Marchmain clan: Dull older brother Bridey Flyte (Ed Stoppard); spritely younger sister, Cordelia (Felicity Jones); and 19-year-old Julia (Hayley Atwell), a headstrong beauty who claims to have rejected her mother's faith. And Charles finally meets the high-handed, silver-haired Lacy Marchmain, whose extreme devotion to the Catholic Church has driven away her husband, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), who's living in Venice with an Italian woman (Greta Scacchi), and, Charles begins to realize, her children. Though Lady Marchmain abhors Charles' atheism and mocks his desire to become an artist by referring to him as "the painter from Paddington," she knows secular devotion when she sees it and asks Charles to keep an eye on Sebastian. But Charles can't resist the allure of Brideshead and his one possible entree into its rarefied world: Julia.
With a masterfully economical screenplay by Jeremy Davies (the man behind the BBC's acclaimed adaptations of BLEAK HOUSE and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE), Jarrold's version of Waugh's novel wastes no time with subtleties: Charles's father (marvelously played by Patrick Malahide) is sardonically indifferent to the point of cruelty, Lady Marchmain's machinations border on psychological abuse and the novel's homoeroticism is made explicit with Charles's acceptance of a kiss on the lips from the smitten Sebastian. Only Charles's conversion to the Marchmain's -- and Waugh's -- Catholicism has been rendered ambiguous with a final image more lovely than anything the book has to offer. The weak link is Whishaw's Sebastian, a wilting spring blossom one can't care very much about (how different from Anthony Andrew's heartbreaking performance in the BBC series). But even this perceived flaw in an otherwise solid cast ultimately works in the film's favor: It shifts the focus from Charles and Sebastian's youthful idyll to the stronger, more provocative relationship between Charles and Julia, wherein lies Waugh's concerns with materialism and velvet-gloved dual grip of family and religion. leave a comment --Ken Fox