Among the nerdcorps who relish a little Brit wit with their slash fanfic, or vice versa, reading into the Arcadian friendship of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, the between-the-wars Oxford aesthetes of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is a favorite pastime. So when, in Julian Jarrold’s new film version, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) gives Charles (Matthew Goode) a shy little kiss, like a gazelle, the sweater set may let out a little squee! — except that the definitive queering of the deal turns out to be part of an overall strategy not of extrapolation but literalization: the subtext here is rapidly becoming, uh, text.
Most notably triple-underlined are the ties of Catholicism which, more steadfastly than blood, resist the dissolving agents of booze and lust (romantically indulged by secular narrator and fascinated interloper Charles), and bond together the Marchmain family, broken-winged barfly spare Simon and musty heir Bridey and true believer Cordelia and even exiled Lord M. and his Italian mistress, and sis Julia, Charles’s second and more adult enchantment. Admirable of course for a mainstream film to take on religion so frontally, but did Brideshead Revisited have to take on religion so frontally? Screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, who you’d think would have kept more of Waugh’s metrical dialogue, engage religious themes chiefly by having religion be the only topic of conversation — a fun Brideshead Revisited drinking game would be to swill some decades-old port every a Catholic character brings conversation to a thudding halt by kicking the matter upstairs. Emma Thompson, in iron butterfly get-up as Lady Marchmain, is chief hammer dropper: even if you restricted the game to just her character (or did it for every time director Julian Jarrold lingers over a devotional tableau), you’d end up more sideways than Whishaw’s fey prodigal routine. Goode, meanwhile, is handsome, deferential, and looks good in old suits — he’s everybody’s ideal star of the kind of well-mannered, Great Books-derived cinematic comfort food that this misbegotten Brideshead aspires so visibly to be. But not even the weather cooperated: heavy rains and flooding hit … during shooting, so damp overcast skies stand in for the golden-hued summer light of idealized memory.