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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

British People in Costumes: Brideshead Revisited and Other Period Pieces

Of all the genres of film – other than musicals – costume dramas are usually the ones thatput me off the most. I find most of them stuffy and the overly mannered way in which they are filmed usually lulls me into a state similar to being half-asleep. Of course, there are a few which I absolutely adore, like Martin Scorsese’s beautiful Age of Innocence or Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Barry Lyndon.The interesting thing is that I find many of the books that costume dramas are based on to be fascinating; I took a class on Edith Wharton and Willa Cather and wound up reading much of their oeuvres and enjoying myself the whole time. So what is it about the translation of brilliant books about the minor transgressions of polite upper-crust British folks that makes the viewing of them such a chore?

I suppose it hits at the heart of adapting a novel in the first place: there is just no way to take those dense pages and splash them on the screen; there will always be a large amount of vital information that will have to be shredded in order to condense a sprawling opus into a two or three hour motion picture.

The other hurdles are originality and vigor. By this point, we have seen the beautiful crane shots that capture an enormous, majestic space with tuxedo-clad men and gowned women frolicking in candlelit ballrooms or on the lush, green lawns of palatial estates. Something new and relevant must be brought out by the filmmakers because of all the novels and all the stories in the world, they chose this one and they must make us understand why this story, set in the past, is important to our world today.

Filmmakers like Sofia Coppola have tried to put a fresher spin on things by adding contemporary music – as in Marie Antoinette (which had already been done to better effect inA Knight’s Tale) – but otehr than the music the only relevant point I can see Coppola making in that film isabout celebrity. She portrayed Marie Antoinette as the Paris Hilton of her time and I think that was an interesting spin to put on it, but Coppola was happy to oblige by many of the contrivances we are familiar with in costume dramas. Ultimately, the film was a disappointment because although Coppola was striving for something different, she was too hesitant to really go for it. We wind up feeling nothing for Marie Antoinette by the end of the film because the film does a poor job of making us understand why she would stand by her husband to the bitter end – it had been too wrapped up in scene after scene of Manolo Blahnik shoes. Instead of making the audience relate to the story, she tries to help us relate to the fashion and music. In the end, that winds up being a shallow substitute for sympathy.

So ultimately, when we watch a period piece we need to be able to relate to the characters and their plights. That way, we can see why the filmmaker chose to tell the story, as a way of pointing out, “hey, although these people are fabulously wealthy and live in a different era, they still had similar problems.” A film like the recent remake of Pride and Prejudice does that quite well or – staying with Joe Wright – Atonement which may not be set all that long ago but is still a very different style of life than the one we’re familiar with.

In Julian Jarrold’s (he did the fun and cheeky Kinky Boots) new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the action begins in the late 1920’s and continues into the early 40’s. Some might not call this a period or costume drama, but this is definitely a film about a certain time and place and there are certainly costumes.

The story of the book – and the film – centers around a young atheist social climber named Charles Ryder in 1920’s England. When he attends Oxford he meets a fey, beautiful young man named Sebastian Flyte who introduces Charles to his very elegant home and his very Catholic family. It’s clear from the outset of both the novel and film that Sebastian wants more than just a friendship with Charles, but feels a tremendous amount of – literally – Catholic guilt over his own homosexuality. Charles, wanting a friendship with Sebastian, is also smitten with Sebastian’s sister Julia. Julia and Charles’ mother, the devout Lady Marchmain, is the embodiment of religious manipulation and turpitude.

The book is so unbelievably dense that it was turned into an eleven hour miniseries in the early 80’s starring Jeremy Irons as Charles. This new version, with Match Point’s Matthew Goode at the center, runs a little more than two hours. Needless to say, many a vital subplot and pivotal scenes have been jettisoned. The backbone of the piece is intact, but it lacks the depth of the source material.

But the larger problem is that I didn’t understand why this story was important today. The first half of the film is spent building the relationships, friendships and the quagmire of a love triangle at the heart of it and the second half becomes a film about religion. Quite quickly, the film turns from a frothy love story that is quite entertaining to one about the depravity of religion and social climbing. This is all part of the source material, but in the film it all happens much too abruptly, with very little ground work laid in advance.

Matthew Goode is excellent in the lead role, providing much excitement for those who can’t wait to see him as Ozymandias in the upcoming Watchmen adaptation. He provides a strong, charismatic center who is strong in his beliefs and Goode makes us buy it. However, his two co-leads don’t fare so well. Ben Whishaw, who was so excellent in Perfume, plays Sebastian as such an effeminate way that it almost makes it comical; it’s as if he’s doing a cabaret performance. Part of that is the nature of the character, but much of it is a misreading of the source material. Hayley Atwell – so luminous in Cassandra’s Dream – is flat in her role as Julia, but I think the larger problem is with the script. We don’t understand why Charles is so smitten with a woman who is not all that interesting and more than a little bit annoying.

The overarching issue I had with the film was that it was so staid. There was no life to the film except for a few flashes in the early going and it winds up just sitting there, like Charles’ father in a darkened room playing chess. Jarrold doesn’t delve into the motivations of each of the characters and it’s hard to relate to people who are both undeniably intelligent and woefully ignorant at the same time.

I came away thinking of Justin Chadwick’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which came out earlier this year. That film was not exactly a masterpiece, but it knew its material well enough to know that the way modern audiences could relate to these people was to amp up the soap opera aspect of it. That film winds up being delightful in a guilty-pleasure kind of way and the actors and filmmakers all seem in on the joke; they saw the difficulty in making that story work as a straight drama, so they vamped it up.

Brideshead Revisited on the other hand becomes an anti-joy, increasingly tedious to watch. Even for folks that hadn’t read the book or seen the miniseries, the movie hews so closely to convention that anybody could tell you what would ultimately befall each of these characters. It doesn’t help that the last half of the film pays no mind to the most interesting relationship – Charles and Sebastian’s.

I walked out of the theater with some friends and couldn’t help but wonder: why this story and why now? The religious implications aren’t powerful enough to make us wonder about zealotry today and the relationships are so shallow that we can’t sympathize with them. And why bother telling this story in a condensed version when there is already a filmed adaptation which is far more complete?

When I watch Age of Innocence, I cry because of the desperate longing that Newland feels while wanting to be isolated from everything he knows. When I watch Barry Lyndon, I can understand Redmond’s desire to grasp just a little bit more and reach just a little bit higher. When I watch Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, I can relate to Lizzie’s immature notions of love that slowly wither away in the face of actual love. Hell, when I watchShakespeare in Love, I can relate to that feeling of love bringing out the best in your abilities.

But when I watched Brideshead Revisited, I couldn’t relate to these characters and I certainly couldn’t relate to the period. It’s not a bad film by any means, full of interesting performances and it’s gorgeous to look at, but I simply couldn’t find a reason for it to exist.

– Noah Forrest
August 5, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon