“Welcome to Brideshead, Mr. Ryder.”

On Saturday, Abby, Cambria and I got into a discussion about why men don’t like Sarah Jessica Parker while women tend to love her over margaritas and fries at Dallas BBQ, which eventually segued into a discussion about why men don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman. I said basically what Sadie said in the above linked Jezebel article, that it’s because what men are attracted to (boobs, ass, Jessica Alba basically) is not what women necessarily aspire to be. Women (and not all women, of course, but all the women I know at least, which is many) want to be beautiful and composed; Paltrow and Kidman and to an extent Parker are all very statuesque, ladylike, and some might say cold. I swear to God this is relevant.

How I feel about Gwyneth Paltrow is how I feel about Brideshead Revisited. It is a beautiful novel, statuesque, refined and amazingly constructed, but, ultimately, a bit cold. This is not your cozy, funny Jane Austen, or your hilarious Nancy Mitford (a great, great friend of Evelyn Waugh’s, whose book, The Pursuit of Love, Abby called, “A warm cup of tea”), or even the sort of blazing, epic romance found in Atonement. This is a sculpture of a book, with a majestic beauty not unlike the house referenced in the title. Its characters are all fairly unlikeable while remaining sympathetic, not a small feat, and its hero is more inconsolably lonely at the end than he was in the beginning, still resistant, although weakly, to the sort of deep faith that drove him from everyone he ever really loved.

I saw the new film version of Brideshead Revisited on Saturday, after the aforementioned margaritas, and though I have not seen the BBC miniseries and thus cannot compare them, I thought Julian Jerrold, who also directed my beloved Becoming Jane, did an excellent job of communicating this beautiful coldness on screen. The lighting is pitch perfect, and while they take the relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte a bit farther than I would given the source material, the acting is spot-on, creating a strong, shadowy connection between all of the characters. Matthew Goode, who I had heretofor only seen in The Lookout (where he was the victim of an American accent, cliche characterization, and having to play opposite the amazing Joseph Gordon Levitt), was AMAZING as Charles Ryder. Emma Thompson, despite being great as Lady Marchmain, was distractingly Emma Thompson, I never really like Sebastian much so while I appreciate Ben Whishaw I wasn’t particularly affected by his performance, and Hayley Atwell (who is not the same person as Michelle Monahan, despite Cambria’s insistence to the contrary) was very impressive as the guilt-ridden Julia Flyte, but Matthew Goode was the obvious star of the film, and his portrayal of Charles Ryder is the one that sticks in your mind when you leave the theater.

I thought Jerrold’s choices with the film were really interesting. Catholicism plays a large part in the novel, as the entire aristocratic Flyte family (Mother Lady Marchmain, sons Bridey and Sebastian, daughters Julia and Cordelia) are Catholic, born and raised, with varying levels of devotion and observance, while their father, the likeably wicked Lord Marchmain, has fallen away from the church that he adopted in order to marry Lady Marchmain and is living in sin with his Italian mistress in Venice. Charles Ryder, the man whose memoirs we are experiencing, is neither aristocratic nor religious–he is atheist, although at first he seems not to have given it much thought in the past, but as time goes by, as his life becomes more and more entangled with that of the Flytes, he becomes more and more resistant to the pull of the faith he feels is destroying his friends. The author, Evelyn Waugh, a convert to Catholicism, wrote the book specifically to combat the widely held opinion that the religious, especially staunch Catholics in a laxadasically Anglican England, were ridiculous people whose deeply held faiths were easily shaken and disproven by the brilliant insight of nonbelievers. He meant it to be an exploration of the ways in which God’s Grace can operate in a group of diverse but interconnected people, not a condemnation of the Church or religion or the faithful.

This is not to say that Waugh’s book presents religion in an altogether positive light. But I think what Waugh is trying to do is show what a struggle it is to remain moral and faithful in the face of overwhelming desire and despair, and how sometimes it can appear to cause outrageous suffering. I don’t think Charles misunderstands Lady Marchmain–she is manipulating people by invoking God, and in many ways she fails to comprehend that the trappings of religion and the convictions of religion are not the same (as when she convinces Julia to marry recent Catholic convert Rex Mottram, when Julia is clearly in love with Charles). HOWEVER, what Jerrold’s film seems to miss (and here I am fully willing to admit that I have missed it in this adaptation, that the failing might lie in my interpretation) is that, at the end, all of the characters who began the novel in varying degrees of religious certainty have come full circle to appreciate the operation of divine Grace in their lives, that they are not defeated by Charles’ agnostic pragmatism and that he, instead, is changed by their considered submission to the will of God. I cannot decide if the way Jerrold decided to end the film was a determination to be as subtle with Charles’ conversion to the faith as Waugh was, the differences being caused by medium, or if he was deliberately leaving it ambiguous so that purists could not be angry and he could retain this sense that Charles will never believe for those who would be bothered by an admission of faith from him.

(The only other thing that I thought was missing was a strong impression of how connected Charles is to Brideshead. In the book, he imprints himself on the place, painting those pictures for Lady Marchmain. It makes Julia’s accusation that Charles isn’t so much in love with her as with the idea of living at Brideshead with her carry so much more weight if you are aware of just how much he loves the place. But that’s a minor quibble–as Abby said, I’m willing to just assume that, having read the book.)

Nevertheless, the movie was completely engrossing, the acting was great, the shots were amazing, the costuming was stunning, and the story was perfectly wrought within the smaller framework of a two hour film. I would definitely recommend it if it is ever widely released.

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Background

I’m about to get to work on AUT but I just thought I’d put this up. The image below is my desktop on my computer, not just because I love Atonement, which of course I do, but because I think it’s an incredible shot, one that doesn’t get nearly enough play in the movie.

briony and robbie

I think this photograph is incredible. If you haven’t read or seen Atonement you might want to navigate away while I talk about this, so that I don’t spoil it for you. First, there is the double frame, Robbie beneath the outer stone arch (representative of his outsider status, despite his posh education and good looks he’s still the charwoman’s son), Briony stretched out in the inner doorway, blocking Robbie’s entrance into the house. Their props are so significant–he’s pulling on gardener’s gloves, to show where he came from and where he is going (manual labor, hardship, prison, the war, etc.), she gripping her newly finished play, The Trials of Arabella, a play that “told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed.” These are the stays of Briony’s life–a very conservative sort of childlike morality has her in its grips, completely discounting the sweeping passion of the sort of love Robbie and Cecilia experience (see how close he is to nature, how far away she is from it?)–but the play also admits for a sort of love in disguise, the love that sneaks up on you in the form of a person you have known for a long time but never really recognized. The play itself is an enormously revealing thing–Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship first appears to Briony as the correlating to the relationship between Arabella and the devious count who whisks her away only to abandon her, but eventually, after many years, Briony comes to see that the truth of their love is much more that of Arabella and the doctor prince who saves her life after she falls ill. With her here, holding the play tightly, not looking at Robbie, looming over him and keeping him out, the photo is such a harbinger of things to come.

It is also (and here I come to my point) a brilliant little comment on authorship. Briony, here, is so much THE WRITER. She has her finished manuscript in her hand, but her most devastating, her finest work, starts right here, with this little tableau. She is not only Robbie’s friend (in a loose sense) here, she is his creator–she turns him into the person he becomes, she creates Robbie the Rapist, Robbie the Prisoner, Robbie the Soldier, Robbie the Epic Lover, with her lies. Here the frames take on a double-meaning; not only are they putting people in their place, separating, defining Robbie and Briony, but they are also the frames of Briony’s story, some of which necessarily fall away in the film adaptation but are preserved symbollicly here–the first frame, the farthest out, the farthest from “reality”, is Robbie’s frame, where he and Cecilia live, their lives altered forever by Briony’s fabrication and their destinies changed to assuage her guilt; then there is Briony’s frame, the authorial frame, the one we don’t recognize until it is too late; and, finally, there is the “true” perspective, that of the filmmaker (in case of the book, of Ian McEwan), the hidden frame. And then, of course, there’s us.

God, if only someday we could all create a piece of work that has a fraction of the complexity, depth, and beauty as Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I think we should all be very happy with ourselves.