During the Second World War, English army captain Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) finds himself stationed at the castle estate of the aristocratic family with whom he once was infatuated. Charles thinks wistfully back to his crush on the dandyish, alcoholic Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), to his full-blown affair with Sebastian’s wised-up sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and to his courtly battles of will with their rigidly Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson).
Brideshead Revisited, written by Andrew Davies with Jeremy Brock and directed by Julian Jarrold, is ostensibly an adaptation of Evelyn’s Waugh’s celebrated 1945 novel — at the time an important departure for the author, who’d made his name with fast and fizzy satire and then became a religious convert. But this film’s real point of comparison will be with the impeccable, unbeatable, 11-hour-long miniseries of the same tale, made for British television in 1981.
Goode and Whishaw deliver fine, watchable performances, but Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews were definitive. Nor can Thompson, excellent as usual, if a touch actorly and possibly miscast, top Claire Bloom in any way except for sheer star power. But then, that seems to be just what this dramatically tidy movie wants, rather glibly packaged as it is for crossover to American audiences. If nothing else, it signifies the ongoing evolution of filmed versions of British books — in this case, from a novel of wealth-worshipping white-flannel nostalgia for Edwardian aristocracy, to a Thatcherite endorsement thereof, to a soft (and expensive) pillow of star-powered sentimental attachment to nostalgia itself.