In certain scenes, Laurence Olivier took more time sipping his tea in the 1981 British television adaptation of " Brideshead Revisited" than it takes to watch the entirety of the brisk, rather disheveled film version of the Evelyn Waugh novel now in theaters.
The miniseries starred Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, and it luxuriated in each summery strawberries-and-champagne picnic or stroll down an imperious manor hallway, and every mournfully elongated Irons vowel-sound in voice-over. Some consider the '81 "Brideshead Revisited" among the medium's finest 11 hours. Take away nine of those 11, add a little ill-advised hand-held camerawork for immediacy and you've got a necessarily abridged, conventionally scaled page-to-screen adaptation—a "fierce little human tragedy" in the words of Waugh's tormented protagonist.
The new film is directed by British TV veteran Julian Jarrold, who also made "Becoming Jane," the so-so Jane Austen-in-love biopic starring Anne Hathaway. "Brideshead Revisited" is better than that, at least, and screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock have made the tough decisions about who's important to them, and which characters will take center stage. Matthew Goode ("Match Point") takes the role played a generation ago by Irons, that of Charles Ryder, religious skeptic, middle-class visitor to the privileged rabbit hole that is Oxford University. Charles befriends Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), disreputable son of the aristocratic Catholic Marchmain household.
The new film heightens the relationship between Charles and Sebastian's younger sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). It also positions the fearsome Lady Marchmain front and center, wielding her religion like a bludgeon. She's played by Emma Thompson, pretending to be older and less naturally ebullient than Emma Thompson really is.
Thompson, Goode and Atwell make for fine screen company, despite Thompson's arguable miscasting. Also good are Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain and Greta Scacchi as his Italian mistress, Cara, the one who explains Italian Catholics thus: "We do what the heart tells us, and then we go to confession." Waugh himself converted to Catholicism in 1930. He considered the religion "the most complete and vital form" of Christianity, and to him, it was impossible to "accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests."
The new film seems a little nervous about the religious content; it's more interested in the swoony bits between Charles and Julia. The latter character has been interpolated into some Venice passages (a change from the book), the better to stoke the sexual jealousy experienced by Whishaw's affecting if extremely mannered Sebastian.
Director Jarrold wants to take as much starch as possible out of the material, the way Joe Wright loosened up the recent, exuberant "Pride & Prejudice." Yet Jarrold's framing and cutting sense is strictly routine. And besides: What is this dream of between-the-wars England without the starch?
Starring: Matthew Goode (Charles Ryder); Ben Whishaw (Sebastian Flyte); Hayley Atwell (Julia Flyte); Emma Thompson (Lady Marchmain); Michael Gambon (Lord Marchmain); Greta Scacchi (Cara).
Directed by: Julian Jarrold; written by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh; photographed by Jess Hall; edited by Chris Gill; music by Adrian Johnston; production designed by Alice Normington; produced by Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae and Kevin Loader. A Miramax Films release.