Saturday, September 10, 2011

“Brideshead Revisited” Revisited

Thinking she was borrowing the classic TV presentation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, with Laurence Olivier and Jeremy Irons, my wife checked out what proved to be a 2008 film remake.    Since I didn’t recall the release of this film, though I do follow reviews, I figured it must have been panned, or damned with faint praise, not even to register in memory.  I would never have selected it myself.
Well, serendipity.  The movie is splendidly well-made.  Indeed, but for the long shadow of its televisual predecessor, which blights all that might otherwise  grow in its turf, this film would itself undoubtedly have been hailed as a classic.   It cannot have been dismissed out of hand  save by critics ever looking over their shoulders at  the predecessor.
An additional pleasure is seeing a couple of “Harry Potter” stalwarts in vastly different roles, almost unrecognizable.   It shows that they really are actors, and masters at the game, not stereotypes.

[For an analogous experience of re-visiting an old classic in a new guise:  Fantasia and The Day the Earth Stood Still.]


Thus enthused, we naturally had to check out the TV version, which we had watched when it came out, in 1981.
When critics reviewed the later movie, their expectations were attuned to the TV.  Ours were now reversed:  having just seen the film, we saw the series in its light.
And the very first impression was not favorable.  It seemed … dawdling, padded.  Confusing, even.  What’s with the X-taped windows?  Actually it doesn’t matter, nothing to do with what follows. -- The film, like a man under a death-sentence (tel Boethius) had been more economical than that.


I first met Waugh’s work in college, reading several of his early novels.  “Wickedly funny”, as the jacket-copy accurately described them.  Emphasis on the “wicked”;  it was by no means apparent, from these japes, that the fellow might be “religious” -- whatever that might mean.  (I was myself, at the time, wholly unchurched.)
And, thus enthused, had proceeded to the much-touted (and as yet unfilmed) Brideshead Revisited.   And drew back.  “Where’s the funny?”
It sailed above my head.  I remember almost nothing of it.

And moreover, thus enthused, it was evident  we had to read (for me, re-read) the original novel as well.  We picked up a copy at the remainder store, the next day.
The book was originally published in 1945 -- an odd date, the result (as Waugh explains) of the “good fortune” of a wound that took him out of action and let him write.
Now, just as it matters, for the appreciation of the series adaptation resp. the film, which order you see them in, so does the (revised, revisited) edition of the novel load the dice for your reading experience.  For in the preface (1959) to the 1960 edition, in the very first paragraph, the author states, that the theme of the novel is:

the operation of divine grace

Class:  What is the theme of the novel we have just read?  There’s the answer right there!  It will be on the test!

When we saw the series, back in 1981, we were still unchurched;  but my bride was with child, and we’d been married by a man of the cloth; so we were both, you might say, “further along”.   And for both of us, the high point came when  the wastrel, Lord Marchmain, on his deathbed, surrounded by the breath-held attentions of his practicing Catholic family, at length and at last, in articulo mortis … sains himself -- God be praised !
But that culmination comes at the end;  we had certainly not experienced the many hours of the series, minute by minute, cocktail after teddy-bear, as an exercise in Catholic mysticism.  Thus, both the film and the series are cast in an entirely new light when revisited:  the river has changed color when next you step in it.


So -- the depiction of divine grace;  a worthy goal indeed, but a tall order.   Does the tale live up to it?
The film does not.  There is a reference at the end to Sebastian having turned his life around, and being the pet of the monks; and Lord Marchmain does his sign-of-the-cross thing, though somehow the scene lacks in anticipation and intensity, this time round.  For one thing, though Marchmain/Dumbledore has a lot of fun in the tiny slice of screen-time he’s allowed, we don’t really come to know him:  it’s like watching a stranger do that.  In the TV series, when Olivier does it, it’s riveting -- but the director leaves it nicely ambiguous, whether he has in fact converted on his deathbed to the full Catholic faith, or whether he was simply doing it as a gesture of charity and repentence to the family he’d abandoned, and which has been sitting there waiting for such a sign with bated breath.  (Of course, Grace is involved in either case.)

[To be continued, as time and life allow.]

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