Despite its flaws, fans of historical dramas may enjoy this adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which is set in England during WWII and told mostly through an interesting set of flashbacks from decades earlier. It has all the familiar elements of British period pieces: breathtaking settings, class consciousness, near-melodramatic plotting, and conflicted characters who are as deeply flawed as they are complex.
Matthew Goode stars as Charles Ryder, a middle-class aspiring artist who meets upper-crust Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) at Oxford and they become quite close . . . so close that we wonder whether Charles is as subliminally or secretly gay as the alcoholic Sebastian and his foppish friends are openly so. When Sebastian kisses Charles, there's no pushing away, no declaration of heterosexuality, and that lays the groundwork for the film's central themes and conflict: illicit love, star-crossed love, unrequited love, misplaced love. Charles also finds himself drawn to his friend's sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell), and the plot turns as much on this attraction as it does the other. But watching in the wings is the aristocratic family matriarch, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) and, to a lesser degree, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), who is in exile. There are class politics, gender politics, and all manner of manipulations and attempted manipulations which are designed to keep the characters in control of their out-of-control lives and viewers on the edge of their seats. But the first half of "Brideshead Revisited" is considerably stronger than the second, with the result being that there's much more "squirming" in the home theater seats.
As Charles' relationship develops with Sebastian, there's both a sexual tension and an edginess that's lost in the plodding pacing that clogs the second act. The screenwriters also seemed to have a difficult time juggling plot elements and finding a strong central focus for the second half of the film. People marry others and then have regrets and see their original loves, and we fast-forward to WWII and Charles' emerging fame as a painter and none of it has the same power as the early scenes. But with a cast like this, it's well-acted at least, and you get a sense of each character's dreams, fears, desires, and motives-which is saying something, these days.
There's something reminiscent of Nick Carraway in Charles, from whose point of view we see the events. His middle-class station establishes him as an outsider whose observations and perceptions at times come close to those Nick made in "The Great Gatsby." It's at those introspective and insightful moments when the film feel's richest. Later in the film Charles seems more dumbfounded than thoughtful, more numb than introspective, and because he yearns to be a part of this life the interesting contrast disappears, rather than deepens. How much of this is the result of a watered-down film interpretation is impossible to say, since it's been years since I read the book. But I suspect that reader-viewers who are exacting about their adaptations will find this one lacking.
At times--again, especially in the second half--this begins to play like a made-for-TV movie, which is, in fact, the background of one of the co-writers. The other, Jeremy Brock, gave us "The Last King of Scotland." But this one suffers by comparison because there is no single, intense character to carry the film, and again the contrast between the narrator and main characters just isn't deep enough. What works, though, is the film's tone and atmosphere, which is sufficiently helped by location filming (London, West Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, North Yorkshire, Morocco, and Venice) Adrian Johnston's score, and Alice Normington's meticulous production design. It's positively dripping with period nuance and the musky scent of yearning.
For a DVD (and I find myself using this qualification a lot, lately) the picture quality is excellent. Colors are rich and vibrant in bright interiors and exteriors, and there's still an atmospheric authenticity conveyed in drabber scenes, with a respectable amount of detail--even in shadows. There is, however, a slight amount of grain that's present and noticeable in the backgrounds of some of the brighter scenes. The film is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio and "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions.
Other than the music, "Brideshead Revisited" is all talk, and so the center and front main speakers carry most of the sonic burden. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is clear and free of distortion, with a pleasing enough balance of bass and treble--though it would be an exaggeration to call it a "round" sound or rich timbre. It does the job. Subtitles are in Spanish.
In the main substantial bonus feature--the audio commentary--director Julian Jarrold ("Becoming Jane") is joined by producer Kevin Loader and screenwriter Jeremy Brock. While the commentary is as low-key as the film, there's a lot here. In addition to pointing out locations (like Castle Howard, in Coneysthorpe), talking about shots, and recollecting how things came together, the group talks comparatively, and that gives a broader context to the usual anecdotes and technical divulgences. I enjoyed it, better than the seven brief deleted scenes (playable with or without commentary by the same trio) which were cut because there was too much overt exposition or they were unnecessary. Rounding out the bonus features was "The World of Brideshead," a brief feature that shows behind-the-scenes footage mixed with film clips and interviews with the cast conducted on the various sets, interspersed with talking heads remarks by the filmmakers that were filmed later. We see boom mikes, cameras on dollies, and the larger context that I've always found fascinating. In a way, it's a pretty standard making-of feature, but because of the wealth of footage like that and some insightful comments by the staff, it's also better than average.
"Brideshead Revisited" comes on a single-sided disc that's housed in a keep-case and cardboard sleeve, with an announcement inside on how to enter a "Visit the Life of Luxury Brideshead Revisited Sweepstakes."
"Brideshead Revisited" is richly atmospheric and commands our attention for the first half, but drags toward a conclusion rather than building toward one. In the end, you're torn between praising the atmosphere and performances and lamenting the second-act sag.