Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited is still an accepted classic, and so is the famous TV miniseries from the early ‘80s, with its heavyweight star cast (the father figures were played by no less than Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud). It actually takes longer to watch the whole miniseries than to read the book, and PBS viewers were as overcome as Jeremy Irons’s besotted, middle-class Charles Ryder at the sight of all the decadent glamour of the sprawling Brideshead mansion and the ambiguous Catholic deathtrap which lay waiting within it. In the miniseries, Anthony Andrews made the teddy bear-hugging rich boy Sebastian into a woefully lovable and then tragic figure, drowning his sorrows in drink. Sebastian is gay, and Charles is pretty willing to bend, but Waugh is too fastidious to bring this up in any direct manner; consequently, many fans of Brideshead Revisited aren’t quite sure if Charles and Sebastian are ever lovers, and the miniseries is no help in this regard. Irons looks at Andrews with highly convincing love in his eyes, and even speaks of how he loves Sebastian during his endless, soothing voiceovers, which always seem to begin, “Ahhhh….those languid days at Brideshead….with Sebastian…which can never be again.” It’s the first few hours of college-boy love between Charles and Sebastian that give the miniseries of Brideshead its powerful romantic charge; in comparison, the last few hours where Charles tries to love Sebastian’s sister Julia are cryptic, dreary and depressingly unconvincing.
The book and the miniseries suggest rather strongly that Charles turns to Julia because she is the closest he can get to Sebastian, the only possible “mature” love object for a hidebound, cunning man. In the press notes for this new film version of Brideshead, the filmmakers acknowledge how pleased the Waugh estate is that they have decided to stress the romance between Charles and Julia. I’m glad that Waugh’s heirs are so pleased that the book has now been turned into a conventional heterosexual romance, and surely they’re also guardedly pleased that Sebastian has been definitively hauled out of the closet while Charles is now straight and nothing but. A scene has been added for this new version where Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) tipsily kisses Charles (Matthew Goode) on the mouth, and though Charles doesn’t really deflect the kiss, Sebastian gradually realizes that he’s being sensitively rebuffed by his friend. This scene will gratify the more literal-minded who have been wondering about these two all these years, yet this clarification kills all of the suggestiveness and mystery that remains in the material. In the early ‘80s, you could still get away with telling a gay love story without daring to speak its name. In 2008, there’s no way to leave the Charles and Sebastian question open, which says a lot about social progress but also tells us why Waugh’s story doesn’t work anymore.
The triumph of Claire Bloom’s career performance as Lady Marchmain in the miniseries was her unexpected sensuality, her seductiveness. Like many truly successful domestic tyrants, Lady Marchmain is a woman of sumptuous charm, yet she’s a venomous snake in the grass underneath her finery, a Catholic temptress who destroys her family for not living up to her inhuman standards. This woman is a fortress, but peculiarly sympathetic too, and Bloom’s work is so multileveled that we know why Charles wants to please her, even as we watch Sebastian fall to pieces under her watchful eye. Emma Thompson is badly miscast as Lady Marchmain in this new version; her eyes are too bright and sensible, her manner too kind, her wit too modern, and because the story has been so compressed, her relationship with Charles doesn’t make sense. They’ve barely met, and suddenly she’s accusing him of betraying her and analyzing his character as if they have a long history. Brideshead has always been about the things we don’t see, the emotions we have to intuit, but surely the only way we can intuit large sections of the plot in this new version is by trying to remember bits of the book or series.
Though beautifully written by any technical standard, Waugh’s book is confused in its thinking and outdated in its attitude toward Sebastian. I’ve always harbored a fantasy that some writer would someday free Charles and Sebastian from Waugh’s novel and write a different version where they turn Brideshead into a merry male brothel as Lady Marchmain desperately clutches her rosary upstairs. Better that than stranding Sebastian in Morocco with a syphilitic German and leaving Charles playing patty-fingers in the Brideshead holy water. By all accounts, Waugh was trying to write a pro-Catholic novel, but his characters are so complex that they take over the story and lead it clear away from his intentions. This new Brideshead takes a step in the right direction, but it’s time some radical writer or filmmaker dared to leave out the dim Julia charade and let Charles and Sebastian play out their Isherwood/Auden Oxford love match to its full.