Although movie critics like to mock multipart British literary adaptations for being slavishly reverential to their sources, let's just admit that at their best they provide actors with greater opportunities to develop complex characters than any other form of art or entertainment. Even mediocre bookish miniseries can make certain movies seem inadequate or superfluous.
After decades of Masterpiece Theatre, a new adaptation of a classic needs a raison d'etre, whether it's Roman Polanski pouring his first-hand knowledge of threatened youth into Oliver Twist or Joe Wright having the fresh idea to rough up Pride and Prejudice and show just how economically desperate an unmarried woman in Jane Austen's England can be. Who can even remember the big-screen Nicholas Nickleby from 2002? Despite the presence of Christopher Plummer and Juliet Stevenson, it sank into oblivion, unable to compete with Dickens-lovers' memories of the 8 1/2-hour Royal Shakespeare Company's Nickleby that became a smash in London and Broadway and a four-night event on British and American TV.
As far as I can tell, Julian Jarrold, the director of the new Brideshead Revisited, had no creative impetus to adapt Evelyn Waugh's novel apart from making it available to those who lack the patience for the engrossing 11-part 1982 TV version that catapulted Jeremy Irons into stardom and prompted Brideshead parties among the young, literate and fashionable when it played on PBS' Great Performances here. (A set of DVDs is available on the Acorn label.)
Jarrold talked a good game with The New York Times: "It is an archetypal type of story of this young individual from a poorer, less interesting background" - aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) - who is welcomed into this beautiful, magical, alluring kingdom" - the palatial estate of Brideshead - "with wonderful, magical people" - notably, ne'er-do-well and increasingly alcoholic Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) and his staunch Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). "And then," says Jarrold, "he begins to realize that everything is not what it seems."
But Jarrold's reduction of the story is so archetypal that it's indistinguishable from soap opera. It would have been daunting for even a master like Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) to adapt the rich and complex novel for a conventional movie running time, but what Jarrold has done is less adaptation than abbreviation. All the substance has been left on the cutting-room floor.
By contrast, the miniseries put a fresh spin on the era of booze, cigars and promiscuity that Americans associate with F. Scott Fitzgerald. It brought together its own collection of the beautiful and the damned - and made you feel how literally they surveyed the prospect of damnation. Waugh thought he was depicting the "operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters," and John Mortimer's TV script made that clear with its tautly drawn lines of disastrous life-choices and fate.
Jarrold and his screenwriters, Jeremy Brock and the usually able Andrew Davies, take the easy way out. They fashion a tale of two triangles, with Charles at each apex. First, in the throes of a rhapsodic, sexualized friendship with Sebastian, Charles finds himself drawn to Julia. Second, after Charles and Julia reunite and consummate their love, he discovers that he's pitted against a formidable opponent: her Catholic God. If the first triangle leads to some desultory tension, the second is a disaster. Jarrold and company are unable to empathize with Catholic believers such as the Flytes or imagine the subtle workings of their deity. That's one reason the movie develops all the impact of a shaggy-dog (or maybe shaggy-God) story.
This movie depicts the Charles-Sebastian love match in such moony summertime images that it reminded me of a British manor version of "Dave and Steve's Gay Vacation," the David Letterman-Steve Martin mock video from 2005; even when Sebastian's in a wheelchair, he and Charles, like Dave and Steve, simply frolic. The Masterpiece Theatre version left all love-play off-screen, but assumed an audience would read it in (and it was all the more powerful that way); Jarrold's version includes a kiss that appears to make everyone uncomfortable, including the audience.
Thompson makes a stylish, authoritative Lady Marchmain, though she seems to be playing high comedy and drama when the rest of the film goes for suds. And Goode is such a wispy, weak-kneed sort of hero that the luscious Atwell has to funnel enough heat on her own to fuse the two of them. It's the acting feat of the movie, although in context it is, sad to say, a feat of clay.
ONLINE Watch a preview of Brideshead Revisited at baltimoresun.com/brideshead
(Miramax) Starring Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon. Directed by Julian Jarrold. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content. Time 133 minutes.