I knew it would be bad, because (as with the BBC Pride & Prejudice) what two-hour film could compare to a multi-hour, multi-part original. But I was shocked by how bad, how insidiously bad, last year’s remake of Brideshead Revisited was. The only good thing about it was the sumptuous architectural photography: new, often silvery views of Castle Howard, the Yorkshire estate designed by Sir Charles Vanbrugh that figures prominently in the miniseries and is practically a character in the drama; golden glimpses of Oxford; the Paddington townhouse of Ryder, Senior, that’s supposed to look shabby but, with its navy walls, is completely au courant; even a nice romantic chase down a hall of staterooms on an Art Deco ocean liner. The tailoring was perfect, the flapper dresses silken. Even the copious amounts of alcohol were filmed to maximum jewel-like effect.
But meanwhile, back in the world of women and men, the filmmakers turned a twentieth century tale of inchoate desire, class difference, Catholic guilt and the pursuit of happiness into a nineteenth century story of heterosexual romance and money. Starting with the miscasting of Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), who should be, as Anthony Andrews was in the miniseries, the most beautiful boy in the world, continuing on with the complete lack of menace in Charles Ryder (people keep accusing him of being predatory, but Matthew Goode’s beautiful, thinned-out face only reflects amity) and ending with the far greater charms of Hayley Atwell, as Julia Flyte, the whole balance of power is thrown off. All you need to know is that Ryder is played by a young, already drawn Jeremy Irons in the miniseries to summon the appropriate sense of the character as not quite knowing if he is shark or prey.
It has been years since I watched the 1981 miniseries, on VHS no less, but I remember Sebastian casting a shadow over two-thirds of the episodes. In the film, his love for Charles is more of an unrequited crush, and there’s no sense of the possibility of multiple couplings. Combine that with the relative lack of drama generated today by revelations of homosexuality and/or Catholicism, and the whole thing just falls flat. The stakes are too low, and in the second half of the movie, the dialogue diverges from Evelyn Waugh’s novel and becomes anachronistic, preposterous, and vulgar. There’s no tension, and it is a predictable film with a good-looking cipher at its center.
Aloysius, BTW, is Sebastian’s beloved bear, who makes it all the way to Morocco with his master in the miniseries, disappears after first meeting in the movie.