Friday, August 08, 2008

"Brideshead Revisited" -- Waugh's novel leads to interesting storytelling, about pre-WWII British society


I never did watch the PBS television miniseries “Brideshead Revisited,” so I approached the film as a relatively self-contained item, a worldview of its own, expecting a somewhat stereotyped British art film that might have been common in the 60s. It is long, and it is stylized, but it had a lot to say. The film is based on the novel by British author Evelyn Waugh (yup, this is what they mean by “English literature”), and directed by Julian Jarold, produced by BBC and distributed by Disney’s Miramax (post Weinstein Brothers). It is a bit long at 135 minutes, and lavish in 2.35: 1 Even so, many of the potentially intimate scenes are cut quickly and move on.

There has not been as much attention as expected to the controversy as I would expect, and perhaps the attention to the gay supporting character and friendship doesn’t attract notice today. But in fact, the entire story, and the course of the adult life of painter Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), as pretty much a Renaissance man, is generated by happenstance that leads to a long friendship with the “obvious” gay Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whislaw) at the Brideshead Estate.

Now, the value of the movie is really the perspective. As it opens, Brideshead has been taken over and made a military headquarters during WWII, and Ryder is a well-ranked officer. The movie becomes a retrospect of the past ten years of his life, and how that centered around the estate, and how much of it came about by chance.

The other major aspect is the way the chance friendship drove Charles’s whole life and even got his artistic career going. Leaving his widowed dad in London for Oxford and settling in, he meets Sebastian accidentally when the first night Sebastian, in an emergency, enters his ground floor unit and vomits while drunk from a party. The butler actually tells Charles, “you don’t have to clean up after yourself.” Sebastian sends flowers and treats Charles to lunch and invites him to the estate. The “friendship” may be just platonic or may be more intimate; one thinks that Charles likes having a soul like Sebastian in his psychological possession (it’s those polarities, again). They travel to Venice, when Sebastian sees Charles moving in on his sister. Charles’s bisexual nature grows with his art, but he moves toward the idea of having a family and children, which generates some of the duplicities and secret affairs and bargainings in the second half of the film. By Sebastian’s Catholic family, disturbed by drinking as a way to escape from his sin, disowns him. Sebastian goes to Morocco and finds a new life, but then gets sick. When Lady Flyte is dying, she apologetically sends Charles down to Morocco to try to fetch him, and Sebastian himself may be dying.

As to perspective, yes, the story comes from Charles’s point of view, because he seems like the “stronger” and more competitive young man, who can do what he has to do according to the expectations and moral rules of his world. It’s possible to imagine a movie from Sebastian’s viewpoint, instead, and wonder how he would come across as the lead protagonist. We more or less learn how Sebastian feels about Charles from Charles’s worldview. (At one point, when Charles is riding in Sebastian’s crank-started jalopy, Charles says his mother died, and he has no family yet, and Sebastian says something like, “I am your family.”) Yet, the Flyte family, while first indulging Sebastian and educating him and managing his appearances, develops an increasingly negative view of his homosexuality, as a possible eventual threat to its privileged class position in British society, a possible excuse for others to say they should be taken down a peg. And, eventually, the estate must be commandeered foe the war, but only after the elder Flyte passes away (it seems to result from lung cancer – all the men chain smoke in this movie), refusing a priest but giving in to extreme unction at the last possible moment.

Visually, the film is stylized, and somewhat evokes the stereotypes of the older British art film world. Younger men (gay or not) never have chest hair, it seems, and all seem a bit prissy, always wearing properly tailored London suits and ties when out in public.

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