Starring Matthew Goode and Emma Thompson. Rated PG. Opens Friday, July 25, at Fifth Avenue
The Granada TV Brideshead Revisited may not have had all that much relevance to viewers in 1981, but during 11 lovingly detailed hours spent with the pastoral gentry of England between the wars, they got sucked in. This was especially so because this slice of life at Oxford and after centred on a young Jeremy Irons as scholarship student Charles Ryder, smitten with a whole family and its labyrinthine country estate.
Written by Rumpole creator John Mortimer, it was based on a beloved book by Evelyn Waugh, who cleverly balanced a number of desires in his languorous look at subtle conflicts between straight and gay, believer and atheist, Protestant and Catholic, and, most importantly, rich and not-so-obscenely wealthy.
In the newly revisited Brideshead, directed by Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) and written by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, Match Point’s Matthew Goode plays Ryder, a middle-class Londoner who falls in with a college crowd led by Lord Sebastian Flyte. The casting here provides its most jarring contrast, as this Flyte, as played by Perfume lead Ben Whishaw, comes across as petty and campily effeminate, where the original’s Anthony Andrews loomed large enough to make both men and women swoon.
Sebastian’s sister, now part of an oversimplified triangle, is played by bland Hayley Atwell (original: Diana Quick). The piously domineering Lady Marchmain is a wonderful Emma Thompson (it was Claire Bloom in 1981), who takes the tale’s energy when she leaves. Her estranged husband is Michael Gambon (formerly Laurence Olivier), while Ryder’s self-absorbed papa is Patrick Malahide (instead of John Gielgud), and his eventual bride is Anna Madeley (rather than Jane Asher). You get the idea.
Elsewhere, Jonathan Cake plays a character so absurdly American that you just know the actor is English. Unfortunately, the film is sluggish enough, especially in its dimly lit second hour, that you get time to think about such things. The old series remains relevant, however, because it was fun to watch. Here, Brideshead doesn’t seduce; it makes you want to run for the hills.