'Brideshead Revisited" is a wrenching, yet engrossing condensation of an 11-hour PBS miniseries. In it, director Julian Jarrold presents an unvarnished look at the stiff and rarefied realm of upper-crust Britain in the 1930s.
Handsome, thoughtful, and eager to fit in, aspiring artist Charles (a marvelous Mathew Goode) leaves working-class Paddington behind for the charmed life at Oxford, where he meets Sebastian Flyte (a tragic, yet mesmerizing Ben Whishaw), the boyish, polished pixie of abundant wealth and few cares.
Through deception, desertion, and numerous betrayals, their titillating and tense friendship endures, thanks to -- or perhaps despite -- Sebastian's neuroses. Add a poorly hidden drinking problem, nagging guilt and a ruthlessly controlling mother, and you've got the makings of an explosive, Freudian soap opera.
When Sebastian invites Charles home to Brideshead, the ornate family estate, Charles meets Sebastian's bewitching, irresistible sister Julia (the sparkling Hayley Atwell) and gets his true education: a peek at the dark underside of a family torn between their strict Catholic beliefs and reality. Sebastian, at least, is willing to face the fact that this is somewhat of a conflict, glibly announcing, "I'm not a heathen; I'm a sinner!"
At Brideshead, where everyone is bejeweled and proper, a fascinated Charles attempts to study the Flytes as if they were anthropological specimens in a museum.
Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain (an impressively icy Emma Thompson) offers a walking embodiment of "If looks could kill..." Her intense stare alone is enough to make one think twice before approaching, never mind questioning, her dour decree, "We must all accept God's limits."
But they don't. Instead, those limits are pushed to the point of unrelenting tension and inconsolable sorrow. Haughty, chilly and restrained under even the most faith-destroying of circumstances, mommy dearest is determined to keep the family religious and respectable. Sensing Charles' nefarious intentions, she quickly sets him straight, warning that Julia is "destined to marry a Catholic." This, of course, does not deter him in the slightest.
Sebastian's father (a charming and grizzled Michael Gambon) has long since given up on the family and lives with his mistress, Carla (Greta Scacchi), who gets everyone off the hook by summing up the Italian brand of "Catholicism as "different [in that there's] not so much guilt. We do what the heart tells us; then we go to confession."
Resigned to the hopelessness of the present -- despite their material bounty, social standing and prestige -- Lady Marchmain looks forward, proclaiming (none too convincingly), "Happiness in this life is irrelevant."
Hauntingly beautiful, from the score to the sentiment, this elegant period piece is nonetheless timeless in both moralistic message and family dynamics. For while Charles becomes increasingly entwined with the aristocracy, he remains ever the outsider. Yes, even after 10 years and a war, it's true: You can't go home again.