Like Charles Ryder, the narrator and man in the middle of "Brideshead Revisited", I fell completely under the spell of Julia and Sebastian Flyte, Lady Marchmain and their luxurious, doomed lives. I've never forgotten the amazing TV mini-series from the '80s, starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, so I approached this movie re-make with a certain amount of trepidation. Luckily, director Julian Jarrold and his marvelous cast have created a new and different "Brideshead" every bit as enthralling as the original despite its condensed length. One of the principal reasons the movie works for me is the performance by Ben Whishaw as my favorite character, the mesmerizing Sebastian Flyte, who draws artist Charles (Matthew Goode) into the web of the family with dire consequences for all. This is not the vivacious, slightly over-the-top Sebastian from the mini-series but a more piquant, melancholy version whose trusty teddy bear Aloysius seems more of a security blanket here than a quirky prop as he did in the TV series. I admired this actor's brave choices in creating a new character for the pivotal Sebastian. Goode's portrayal of Charles, more of a reactive character but crucial to the complicated relationships in the story, is also excellent. The entire cast, in fact, is impressive, from Emma Thompson as the family matriarch to Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain and Greta Scaachi as his Italian mistress. Hayley Atwell portrays Sebastian's sister Julia with a refreshingly earthy sauciness that leaves the vapid Keira Knightley (actress du jour of recent period pieces) in the dust.
Issues of religion and the relentless restrictions of family ties are brought to the forefront as Charles, an admitted atheist, struggles with the Marchmain family's devout Catholicism which serves as a catalyst for the downfall of many characters in the film. As a delicate and complicated menage a trois develops between Charles, Julia and Sebastian, it's impossible to tell who's corrupting who. Although the movie version is approximately two hours (compared to 16 hours in the mini-series), nothing feels neglected from the original. Watching this dysfunctional family slowly implode amidst their glorious surroundings still holds a strong fascination and this very British story remains a riveting entertainment.
Things to love about this movie: Gorgeous scenes of Venice and the Brideshead estate; excellent performances by all; a slyly romantic scene where Charles and Sebastian describe the dozens of wines they're tasting; lovely, stylish period costumes; Charles spotting Julia across a crowded room in the beginning of the movie
Things to hate about this movie: Charles' horrid father Edward (played by Patrick Malahide)
Pleasant surprises: The attraction between Charles and Sebastian is more overtly depicted in the movie
Unpleasant surprises: The delightful character Anthony Blanche (played by Joseph Beattie) was reduced to only a couple of scenes despite figuring more prominently in the TV series