Brideshead Revisited

Comprehensive and Subtle Catholicity . . .

As a fallen down Catholic, I've often wondered whether or not I'd accept a priest and final rites at my death bed. I suspect I'll be as agnostic as I now am but may play the odds at that time that there is a God and an afterlife.

Director Julian Jarrold and writer Jeremy Brock, together with Evelyn Waugh's novel, pose this dilemma at the end of Brideshead Revisited with the death of a prominent character. In fact, this little masterpiece (as in Masterpiece Theater) treats the influence of the Catholic Church on its major characters in one of the most comprehensive and subtle ways I have ever seen on screen.

Well-known painter and admitted agnostic Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) recalls his pre WWII encounter with the upper-class Flyte family, particularly Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) and Julia (Hayley Atwell), having romantic relations with both of them. Although gay love was not unknown in the twenties and thirties, Ryder's bisexual proclivities could raise an eyebrow or two. The performances of the three are so typically Brit understated and natural as to make obscure any discomfort in the family, and perhaps society, about the triangle.

The real elephants in the rooms are Ryder's fit among the aristocrats because of his belief and middle-class roots (social climbing being a sub theme), and alcoholism, far deadlier than dogma. Brideshead treats all the subjects with earnest balance partly because character is the preeminent driver of the plot. Lady and Lord Marchmain (Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon), parents of the three Flytes, are driving engines of the Catholic debate in the family, but their son's alcoholism and their daughter's independence require much more attention than the Catechism.

Director of Photography Jess Hall will not let you down if you seek the Merchant-Ivory look, the muted but elegant color and low-key light set against the antiquity of the castle. Like the Catholic tenets, and the souls tied to them, the estate endures through wars of nations and of families. No winners in any of those conflicts.