Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
One of the more controversial literary works is Brideshead Revisited, a slow-moving story about one family's personal trials leading up to the second war.
In command of a small contingent of soldiers during the second world war, Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) is forced to remember the past when they are briefly stationed in the estate of Brideshead. It brings back memories of his Cambridge days and his introduction to the eccentric Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews). Known for his unusual set of friends and also for carrying a large brown teddy bear around campus, Sebastian makes his acquaintance when he stumbles over to Charles' window one evening and throws up inside the house, the result of too much alcohol. The next morning brings a profuse apology from Sebastian along with several dozen flowers and an invitation for Charles to join him for lunch. Thus begins a close friendship in which Charles comes to know Sebastian's family and is drawn into the midst of their troubles.
The inhabitants of Brideshead are as far removed from Charles as one might imagine. Wealthy beyond reason and devoted to their Catholic faith, they welcome him with open arms but soon he discovers that Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom) intends to use him to influence Sebastian into reforming his behavior. Charles too is concerned with his friend's excessive drinking but cannot do much to prevent it, content in merely being his closest friend and sampling the wealth and privilege that Sebastian can offer him. A trip abroad to meet Sebastian's philandering father (Laurence Olivier) results in them temporarily parting ways and when Charles is reunited with the family several years later, there is not much he can do to prevent Sebastian's downward spiral. In the years that follow, Charles pursues various various careers and relationships, becomes married and once more meets and subsequently falls in love with Sebastian's younger sister Julia (Diana Quick).
Fans of the novel love this adaptation but I found it rather boring. Its strong point is being able to give more character development to all the central figures but at the same time it drags on for hours without much happening outside long conversations and the continued decline of Sebastian's health and sanity. There are brighter episodes that are more interesting, such as learning Julia's back story, but for the most part I thought it would never end. I have tried to watch it many times over the years and this is the first and last time I have persevered for the sake of filling a reader request. I similarly lost interest in the book, though, so if you liked the book no doubt you will find this miniseries satisfying. Sebastian is a charming and self-destructive character who connects with Charles on a deep level. Their friendship is unusually close and has sparked much debate over whether or not the plot carries subtle tones of homosexuality. The film doesn't take sides. We are left with the impression that Sebastian would be a practicing homosexual if not for his Catholic faith. His beliefs cause him to be incapable of pursuing it any further than "close" male associations (in one instance, with an open and practicing homosexual) but also leave him wracked with guilt, which in turn causes him to turn to alcoholism. It's a very sad but at the same time thought-provoking journey that might disconcert more conservative viewers or anyone not entire comfortable with an exploration of sexuality.
The content is not pervasive but does contain backside nudity in three separate episodes -- in the first, Cordelia catches the boys sunbathing and the camera lingers on their bums as she walks away from them; in another, we see Charles from behind as he finishes his bath, and in the third, a naked man walks past an open doorway at a party. Sebastian's friend Blanche is a flamboyant, lisping, fingernail polish-wearing homosexual who greets him on one occasion with a light peck on the lips. There is some conversation revolving around a man being a playboy and fornicating with women. It's stated that Julia and her fiancé make love to one another before their marriage. Lord Marchmain lives with his mistress abroad. Charles and Julia have an explicit adulterous sexual encounter that includes graphic movement and breast nudity. They then continue to have a romantic relationship over several months. There are some profanities, mild abuses of deity, and two uses of "for Christ's sake..."
Faith and homosexuality are the underlining themes and the former is not treated as harshly as the more recent adaptation. Characters make frequent references to their faith and often pray. The immorality of her children, and her husband abandoning his faith, causes Lady Marchmain no end of distress. Julia's fiancé casually becomes a Catholic so he can marry her. Sebastian takes his faith very seriously and is tormented by guilt; Julia falls away from hers for a time but then chooses to return to it rather than live in adultery with another man. One character on his deathbed returns to faith and another rejects his former atheism; it is implied by his reverence in a chapel that he has embraced the same religion -- or at least become appreciative of its merits.
Brideshead Revisited is not going to appeal to everyone and in all honesty I found it boring. True, there are some good lessons herein about faith and the perils of alcoholism but it is not really my cup of tea. I will say however that the performances are captivating. Andrews is a marvelous Sebastian and it broke my heart to watch his decline -- I much prefer him as the passionate Ivanhoe or the spirited Pimpernel. Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom steal the program -- one as a great character actor, and the other as a woman you truly feel for. She is not so religious that she has no heart, and Bloom really brings out the emotional restraint and sadness of a woman who cannot prevent her children from making dreadful mistakes. It's not going to appeal to the masses but for those who enjoyed the book, will be an entertaining diversion.