The very rich are different from you and me,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. A great part of your reaction to this DVD will depend on whether you find the doings of the very rich fascinating or a big yawn. When I saw Brideshead 20 years ago, I wrote it off as an incredibly slow moving, soggily nostalgic depiction of upper-class twits and their endangered way of life. Well, I was wrong. From the vantage point of 20 years later, I realize that it was actually about upper-class twits approaching spiritual enlightenment at the deliberate speed at which paint dries.
This adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel presents an all-star cast which includes Jeremy Irons as the hero, Charles Ryder, plus Anthony Andrews as his friend, Lord Sebastian Flyte. Claire Bloom and Sir Laurence Olivier play Sebastian’s spectacularly dysfunctional parents and Sir John Gielgud delivers a magnificent comic performance as Charles Ryder’s crazy-as-a-fox father.
Brideshead was first broadcast in Britain in 1981 and in the US on PBS Great Performances in 1982. At that time it was the most expensive ITV production ever. It was plagued by strikes, changes in directors, and an ever-expanding script (the projected 6 hours of film grew to 12 hours of filming over a 3-year period).
The story is told in the form of a humongous flashback. In 1944 Britain, Army Captain Charles Ryder is billeted at Brideshead Castle, the setting of the great drama of his youth. As he wanders the grounds of the castle, he remembers himself in 1922 — a middle-class student in love with the dashing, and aptly named Lord Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian is a well-connected wastrel who is in flight from God and the Catholic Church as personified by his icily pious mother, Lady Marchmain (played by Claire Bloom). Bloom makes Lady Marchmain a sort of monster of goodness; a worthy woman who sucks the oxygen out of any space she inhabits, the sort of mom who ruthlessly deadheads flowers while she explains her plans for dealing with her rebellious son.
The only one who sees through Lady Marchmain’s façade of selflessness is Charles, and he is a shnook, a non-entity, a tepid little soul whose personality barely registers. Though he’s in love with Sebastian he does nothing to save him from his vampire mother. His attitude toward Sebastian’s predicament is summed up by a scene where Sebastian has been sent home in disgrace from Oxford. Charles is packing Sebastian’s things and takes Aloysius, Sebastian’s beloved Teddy Bear mascot, lovingly places him in a coffin-like container and tucks him in. Once Sebastian is out of the picture, Charles seems to have no problem shifting his attentions to Sebastian’s sister Julia.
Charles is a very unsatisfactory hero and Jeremy Irons seems to have all sorts of problems in playing him. Irons looks anxious and confused, as though he’s wandered into the wrong movie and is trying to find a polite way of extricating himself. The story flashes back and forth from Charles age 44 to Charles age 19 and the then 33-year old Irons just didn’t make a believable 19-year old. The biggest problem is that all of the events in the drama lead up to Charles’ religious epiphany at the very end of the story. Since Charles is a non-entity, it’s hard to be moved by his walk with God.
The series has been digitally remastered from the original film version, and it is a stunning visual feast featuring scenes filmed at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, Oxford, London, Wales, Manchester, Venice and Malta. The interiors are gorgeous evocations of Edwardian luxury done with a prevailing palette of rich sepia, rose and moss tones. The visual beauty is complemented by a starry-eyed Ralph Vaughan Williamsy score by Geoffrey Burgon, the composer who wrote the scores for Dr. Who and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
The DVD contains the complete 11-episode series, (659 mins). Special features on the DVD include the 2006 Documentary, Revisiting Brideshead, a 50 minute series of interviews with members of the star cast, the director and the crew. Also included are out-takes, a companion guide, a photo gallery with tiny, rather humdrum photos, production notes and cast filmographies. The makers of the DVD’s special features seem to be unfamiliar with the concept of multimedia. The Long Road to Brideshead: Notes on an Interview with Production Manager Craig McNeil is 7 pages of text, unrelieved by photos, clips or any graphic elements. Since the notes were based on an interview, why didn’t they just videotape the interview? There is nothing more tedious than trying to read pages and pages of text on screen. The Companion Guide that comes with the DVD includes color photos, a note from the series’ second director, Charles Sturridge, a bio of Evelyn Waugh, episode descriptions, a list of filming locations, cast and production team list, and the series’ original broadcast history.
Brideshead Revisited is impeccably staged and acted. In addition to the two greatest actors of the age, Olivier and Gielgud, the series features inspired performances by Claire Bloom and Anthony Andrews. Lovers of the series say that the deliberately languid pacing, the lush visuals and the rich period detail give the series a unique hypnotic quality. The production’s many virtues, in my opinion, are offset by the unfortunate fact that the protagonist of the piece, Captain Charles Ryder, appears to have gone missing in action.
(Acorn Media, 2006)