Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Brideshead Revisited

Review by Matthew Frendo

Let me start by saying that I'm by no means an expert on period pieces.  I've never sat through an entire Merchant-Ivory film, and found last year's Atonement to be utterly atrocious (and boring enough to make watching cabbage slowly rot seem like a Die Hard movie).  I was actually already planning a bad review when I walked into this film.  It was a REALLY funny bad review too.  It was a stunning moment of self-congratulatory genius, and now I can't use it.  At least not now…hopefully I'll see a crap movie soon before it loses steam.

Brideshead Revisited is actually a wonderful piece of art that will probably go down as one of the best of the year.  The story follows Charles Ryder, a painter from Oxford, and his memories as a guest of Brideshead Castle in the early 20th century.  Charles is enamored of the majestic castle from the moment he first lays his eyes on it (and, from a cinematographic standpoint, the castle is a marvelous achievement).  He first goes as the guest of his "friend" Sebastian, who falls in love with him during their brief relationship.  All goes well, until Sebastian's family arrives on the scene.  They have a fully different worldview from Charles, as they are very Catholic, and he is an atheist.

The matriarch of the house is a staunch powerhouse who uses the guilt produced by Catholicism to her own ends, mainly with her children.  Sebastian's sister, Julia, is a girl who timidly does what her mother wishes, even if it goes against her own desires.  Charles falls in love with her, making a love triangle that nothing good can come from.  This unravels all the characters, as Sebastian's drinking intensifies to the point of self-destructiveness, Julia falls into a life that has no happiness, and the matriarch starts slowly dying without being able to put her family back together.  There is more to come from that, but I would not be so trite as to give the entire storyline away here.

Guilt plays an enormous role in Brideshead Revisited.  We see how the guilt brought by the combination of religion and an overbearing (to say the least) mother bring their lives to pain and misery, all in the name of trying to do "good".  The castle itself seems to be a symbol of remnants of a past we can never truly get away from, no matter how we try.  Both children try to leave it as a way to run from the guilt that holds them down, to no real avail.

The performances in Brideshead Revisited are top-notch.  Matthew Goode (Match Point), is excellent as Charles Ryder, the man who so much wants to be a part of the life he sees at Brideshead Castle.  Ben Whishaw (Perfume) manages to be both whimsical and sad as the self-loathing Sebastian.  Hayley Atwell (appearing in the upcoming The Duchess) and Emma Thompson (from almost every period piece that ever gets made) both give near perfect performances as Julia and the matriarch respectively.  Thompson gives a commanding performance that will stick with you as you leave the theater, an exceptional feat given that her entire screen time amounts to no more than 20 minutes.  Atwell, who I was completely unfamiliar with going in, has an air of vulnerability and strength that may make her a lead contender in the Oscar race for Best Actress (with Supporting Actress in all probability going to Thompson).
Overall, an excellent film with enough layers of meaning to warrant a thesis (fortunately for you, though, I’ve reached my allotted quota of words).  Though, in all probability, you won't see it in multiplexes, don't be surprised to hear about it come Oscar time.  Just remember where you heard it first.

4 ½ / 5 stars

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