Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Brideshead Revisited

Confession: I have a soft spot for English dandies. Hence, the obsession with Oscar Wilde, late Victorian poetry, and bowler hats. Love love LOVE bowler hats. So, lit nerd that I am, I went to see Brideshead Revisited for free at my local Landmark.

My coworkers made fun of me relentlessly. For someone so adamantly against the upper classes, I suddenly had the urge to see a bunch of obnoxiously wealthy British people deal with their obnoxiously wealthy British problems. I was, in fact, the only employee who saw this movie. And, strangely enough, I liked it.

Based on Evelyn Waugh's novel, "Brideshead Revisited" is, above all else, about Catholicism. Waugh was writing in the tradition of many Victorian poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Coolidge: a (gay) dandy who, upon discovering Catholicism, is consumed by guilt due to his sexual preference. It's an oft-recurring tale. The original title of the book was "Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder," and according to my beloved Wikipedia, "Waugh wrote that the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself".' So the book is about the protagonist's eventual conversion to Catholicism.

The movie, however, is far more ambiguous about Catholicism. Ryder, self-proclaimed atheist and ambiguously-sexed dreamboat (Matthew Goode, who will soon play Ozymandias in the upcoming Watchmen film!), befriends a flamboyant dandy in his first year at Oxford. The dandy, Sebastian Flyte, introduces Ryder to his wealthy family, including his sister Julia. A love triangle ensues, complicated by immense Catholic guilt from the Flyte children: self-proclaimed "sinners" and "heathens." Instead of being Catholic, the film is instead critical. We see characters driven insane by guilt, by their unstoppable desires. The film seems to wish all Catholics were of the Italian breed, as voiced by the Flyte father's Italian mistress: "Us Italians are different; there's not so much guilt. We follow our hearts, and then confess after." If only all Catholics were so lighthearted. After "Brideshead," Catholicism is one rabbit hole I wouldn't like to fall into, thank you very much.


Anonymous said...

I actually really wanted to walk out of this movie, it was too long of a movie with too much book crammed in there. The beginning was definitely the best part. You should read the book, it's much better.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this version, but I definitely recommend the old BBC mini-series with Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons. From what I've read about the new film, it seems to deviate more from the plot of the book, making certain themes more explicit which were actually quite subtle and largely unspoken in the book. (For example, the novel never explicitly discusses homosexuality, instead calling Charles and Sebastian's relationship, "a romantic friendship.") The Catholic theme is also an undercurrent in the book, rather than the main focus. Sebastian says at one point that he wishes Catholics were more like other people, and in response to Charles poo-poohing the Christian stories as nonsense, Sebastian gravely replies, "They seem to make an awful lot of sense to me."

The book is also less about a love triangle between Sebastian-Charles-Julia. By the time Charles is in a relationship with Julia, Sebastian is out of the picture, in a kind of voluntary exile in Morocco. It is more Sebastian who abandons Charles in the book, than vice versa. But there is a "love triangle" of sorts that pits Julia's love for Charles against her sense of duty to her Catholic upbringing and sternly religious mother. There's a fabulous scene in the old mini-series that takes place in front of the Flytes' huge baroque fountain, in which Julia is wracked with guilt for her "sinful" relationship with Charles. I definitely agree with you, Julia, that the theme of love versus duty makes the Catholic faith come off as pretty unappealing in Brideshead. But in Waugh's view, depressingly enough, God's grace is also irresistible. You can't escape from it. I'd be interested to see what the new film makes of this particular aspect of the Catholic issue.

In short, I'd really like to see this new film to see how it compares, but I strongly recommend both the book and the older film version!

Anonymous said...

Also, on a funny side note, my AIM screen name "contramundum07" comes from a scene in Brideshead Revisited.

(This is Kirsten, by the way, Julia, in case you hadn't guessed!)