…I haven’t seen Brideshead yet. But I did enjoy this early review:

Making notes in 1949 for a review of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited , George Orwell wrote that “Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be… while holding untenable opinions.” Which is a nice way of saying that Waugh, a world-class satirist of everyone from the rich down, was also a social-climbing snob, an anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer, a hater of modernity and by extension (as anyone knows who has read The Loved One, his handy evisceration of the California funeral business) all things American.

[Really? I thought it just meant that Waugh was a Catholic. Learning is fun! I’m pretty sure it’s wrong on the “all things American” count, however. The man didn’t think we were a nation of Joyboys.]

Not that this deterred the millions of Americans who wolfed down the British television adaptation of Brideshead when it aired on PBS in 1981. Cruising right past the novel’s crass Yank (disguised as a Canadian, but it was all the same to Waugh)

[That’s a pretty damning thing to say about a novelist. Seems to me a novelist’s virtue lies in picking out exactly how things are not the same. But then, I’m not a film critic!]

…who does business with the Nazis and sells his wife for a few paintings,


just about every Anglophile I knew fell for the lovely country seat and its delicate-featured nobles dripping with diamonds, Catholic guilt and all. Personally, I never saw the point of stretching out this crisply written and none too long novel about England collapsing under the pressure of social change into a depressive 11-hour slog.

[Ah – a contrarian.]

A movie adaptation, even one passed through the pop filter of co-writer Andrew Davies, British TV’s designated gatekeeper of all properties literary to the masses, sounds like much more fun. And though I can imagine Waugh rolling his eyes at the very idea of Brideshead Revisited as “a heartbreaking romantic epic,” this remake is, often inadvertently, closer to the novel’s spirit than the sepulchral television series, albeit still not half as waggishly Waugh-ish as Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry’s delightfully naughty interpretation of Vile Bodies.

Adapted by Davies with Jeremy Brock, Brideshead isn’t much of a story. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a wan young student who comes from trade, is taken up at Oxford by the feverishly gay

[If Sebastian is feverishly gay, then what is Blanche? Plagueishly gay?]

and increasingly alcoholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and soon finds himself caught up in Sebastian’s struggle with his intensely Catholic family. What it lacks in plot, however, is made up for in atmosphere and constant movement. As directed by Julian Jarrold (who already displayed impressive chops for jollying up the classics by bestowing a saucy love life on Jane Austen in Becoming Jane),

[“Jollying up the classics” is my new favorite euphemism.]

Brideshead Revisited -revisited is a less gloomy affair than its predecessor, boasting better stately homes and gardens bathed in a warm chocolate glow, colorful trips abroad to Venice and Morocco, a marketably youthful cast, and broad winks at the novel’s repressed homosexual attraction between Charles and Sebastian.

[“Bathed in a warm chocolate glow” is my new favorite cooking term. But again – what does the “catalog of mortal sins” line from Charles’ description of the summer indicate if not a homosexual attraction that was not repressed?]

Nothing wrong with any of that—Waugh was an observant creature of the Jazz Age he deplored.

[Did he always deplore it? Did his worldview shift at all after his disastrous first marriage? After his conversion? After the early novels? Who cares!]

If the movie strives and fails to redirect the erotic flow to the heterosexual love between Charles Ryder and Sebastian’s sister, Julia Flyte, so, too, did Waugh, almost certainly a closeted homosexual inhibited by his conversion to Catholicism.

[Why didn’t I know this? Why does the reviewer know it? More importantly, how does the reviewer know it?]

As Julia, Hayley Atwell has none of TV-Julia Diana Quick’s tortured inner radiance, and when she and Charles finally rip off their silken evening clothes aboard a cruise liner, you want to laugh, or look away. In the end nothing that goes on in this youthful triangle proves as compelling as the great, sick love story between the teddy-clutching Sebastian (Whishaw is show-stoppingly queeny and heart-stoppingly vulnerable) and his mummy, an ice-floe nicely understated by Emma Thompson as a woman at once energized and doomed by her devotion to Catholic orthodoxy.

[Ah. It’s a movie about a gay and his mom.]

Waugh, whose cruelty to others in life and literature was legendary, was merciless in taking down this rigidly controlling woman and the son she destroys. But the truly malevolent power of Brideshead Revisited

[Malevolent? Methinks I hear an axe beginning to grind…]

is his identification with what she stood for — a literal reading of the Vatican texts,

[BAM. Because everybody knows that the Vatican texts must be read figuratively, metaphorically – like the Bible!]

the preservation of ancient tradition,

[AIEEEE! Ancient = malevolent?]

and keeping her snooty class free of contamination by interlopers like Charles — and Waugh himself.

[Right. Because English Catholics were entirely of a piece with the rest of the English aristocracy. That’s clear in the novel.]

Late in the day, Waugh turns a pitiless, accusing gaze on Charles’ unacknowledged motives for worming his way into the Marchmain household, and makes him over as a species of villain. You can’t read this switcheroo in the 21st-century

[A century unclouded by warm chocolate glows!]

without revulsion at the self-laceration with which Waugh punished himself for his own pent-up sexuality

[! No, seriously: !]

and his yearning to join a class he was not born into, and at his retreat into unbending religious orthodoxy. Still, though Brideshead Revisited the movie is far from deep,

[Unlike this here review!]

you have to admire the way it refrains from seizing the day for a post-modern lecture on the perils of fundamentalism, and confines itself to the disturbing vision of Evelyn Waugh.

[Like this here review!]


  1. Matthew,

    Great job, once again.

    My only disagreement with your summation is where you locate the axe-grinding.

    I heard the dismal, sour, and highly unpleasant sound of a steel blade submitting to the whetting stone from the first few verbal pumps of the reviewer’s fist.


  2. By the by:

    …that’s dismal, sour, WHINING, ane highly unpleasant sound… is what I meant.


  3. But again – what does the “catalog of mortal sins” line from Charles’ description of the summer indicate if not a homosexual attraction that was not repressed?

    Curious as to others’ reactions on this. I’d always taken that as referring to Charles and Sebastian sinning with slightly known men or women, but not necessarily with each other. There’s clearly a sense of sex as recreation (and as source of bragging rights) among the Boy Malcaster and Anthony Blanche sets respectively, and I never doubted that Charles and Sebastian joined in with everyone else. But I always had a sense that there was an emotional reticence between them such that they would not have acted on their love specifically because they were in love. Their set was eager to play with sex, but not yet to take it seriously.


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