This tension between this life and the next, between human desire and divine command, is indeed at the heart of Waugh’s story. The problem with the film is not that it secularizes the story in the way that, say, the recent film version of The Children of Men eliminated the theological import of P.D. James’ novel. Nor is the problem, as fans of the book and the 1981 mini-series have complained, the film’s overt depiction of homosexual attraction. The film is not “Brokeback Brideshead,” and, besides, the homoeroticism is there in the book.
The real problem is the filmmakers’ entirely conventional conception of love, their utter incomprehension of the novel’s understanding of desire and longing. This can be seen to some extent in the depiction of the friendship of Charles and Lady Marchmain’s son Sebastian (Ben Wishaw), the charming alcoholic, who befriends Charles at Oxford and brings him home to his family’s estate, Brideshead, where Charles is drawn into Sebastian’s eccentric family. In a major departure from the book, the film reduces the cause of Sebastian’s decline into self-destructive behavior to his jealousy over Charles’ affection for Sebastian’s sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell).
The character of Julia dominates the film version of the story. In the final frames, when Charles comes to terms not just with the past but with his own reluctant faith in God, the film makes it unclear whether his act of faith, if it can even be called that, is faith in God or just reverence for the memory of Julia. Having reduced eros to sex, the film ends up distorting Waugh’s thoroughly Augustinian theology of faith and providenceof the way grace operates through the moments of time.
The story begins with Captain Charles Ryder’s return to a nearly vacant Brideshead where his troops are stationed there during the Second World War. Though at first he did not recognize the place, he soon begins to recall his time there and his immersion in the life of Sebastian’s wealthy Roman Catholic family. During the first half of the film, viewers will find it easy enough to lose themselves happily in the dialogue and the visually stunning settings. The screenwriters Andrew Davies (BBC’s Bleak House and Sense and Sensibility) and Jeremy Brock (Mrs. Brown and The Last Kings of Scotland) supply a literate and lush script. The film has a glorious look; standing in for Brideshead, just as it did in the celebrated eleven-hour mini-series made from the book in 1982, is Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. Oxford looks absolutely glorious, as does Venice. The attention to detail, in period furniture and dress, effectively transports the viewer to another time, another place.
But the film’s sense of the past never exceeds nostalgiaan accusation often leveled against Waugh but which a careful reading of Brideshead Revisited refutes. As the narrator in the book, Charles Ryder says quite explicitly at one point, “My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me”one of the book’s many allusions to Augustine’s Confessions. The human capacity to remember provides a sense of individual and communal identity, even as it provokes longing for the past, for an innocence and youthful happiness now vanished. Memory is thus inextricably intertwined with desire. That presents us with an existential quandary. Although we can travel back in time through memory, we cannot become what we were before.
Sebastian tells Charles that he wishes things could remain as they are now, always summerjust as he speaks of wanting to find a happiness that he could bury in a field and then, when he is old and ugly, dig up and remember. The problem of romanticism is that it wants to return to, and recover, a pastan individual childhood or a more innocent age of humanitythat is irrevocably lost. In the book, a key moment of self-insight comes when Charles sees that he has confused his loss of happiness with the necessary loss of youth.
The desire to arrest time, to hold onto the present as if it could be preserved from age, is a powerful human motiveone at the root of art itself. (In both the book and the film one cannot help but think of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”) While the film’s focus is on guilt and lost innocence, Waugh’s focus is on the way faith overcomes the limits of romanticism regarding innocence and the past. It is not simply, as Lady Marchmain severely puts it, that time and eternity are at odds with one another. Instead, the task of faithful memory, or desire recollected through grace, is to discern the workings of providence in and through the moments of time. Thus, time itself, ordinarily an instrument of decay, can be redeemed, as the moments of time are gathered, rather than dispersed.
The film attempts to captures the re-collective nature of Waugh’s narrative (evident in the title) in the most conventional of Hollywood manners: through the limited use of voiceover narration and flashbacks. For the most part, the filmmakers conceal interior thoughts of Charles from us. That makes Charles a much flatter character in the film than he is in the book, where his internal reflections are peppered throughout the story. This omission, combined with the imbalanced way in which the other characters are drawn in the film, leaves viewers deeply puzzled about Charles’ attraction to the Marchmain familya family that Lord Marchmain himself (Michael Gambon), living in exile and in sin with his mistress in Venice, calls monstrous.
The most likely surmise about Charles from the film would be that he, a dull Englishman, is fascinated to the point of obsession with the perversely baroque Catholic sensibilities of the family. Indeed, the film makes it difficult to construe the faith of the family members as anything more than the result of childhood guilt implanted by an imperious and domineering mother (that part of Lady Marchmain is captured perfectly by Thompson). In the book, Charles admits that, before meeting Sebastian’s family, he held a conventional, modern view of religion as “the province of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’catchwords of the decadeand of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for decades.” Waugh clearly intended the dysfunctional monsters of the Marchmain family to be a tragic-comic embodiment of the Freudian view of religion. But he insists, and Charles comes to agree, that there is something more here.
In the book, that something is made explicit in the actions and words of characters and particularly in the narrator’s closing comments. The film supplies voiceovers at the beginning and the end; these both curtail and distort Waugh’s focus. In the opening voiceover, Ryder speaks of his defining emotion as one of guilt, while at the end, as we have already noted, the film confuses faith in God with the memory of Julia.
As it stands, the film most calls to mind another recent film: Atonement, the Oscar-nominated film from last year, a powerful and wrenching tale not so much about atonement as about its impossibilityand about the small, if self-canceling, bit of consolation provided by fictional reconstruction of the past. Fictional here, it needs to be added, involves falsification; the fictional lie provides what is desired but is not forthcoming in life. Now, Waugh’s Brideshead is certainly about guilt, but it is about guilt transformed through mercy and grace, about the retrospectiveand truthfulapprehension of the ways in which divine providence has been at work all along.
In words that speak of art, memory, and faith, Ryder describes his thoughts upon re-entering the chapel at Brideshead:
The chapel showed no ill effects of its long neglect. The paint was as fresh and bright as ever. And the lamp burned once more before the altar. I knelt and said a prayeran ancient, newly-learned form of words. I thought that the builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend. . . . The place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing. Quomodo sedet sola civitasvanity of vanities, all is vanity.
And yet, I thought, that is not the last word. It is not even an apt wordit is a dead word from ten years back. Something quite remote from anything the builders intended had come out of their work and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played. Something none of us thought about at the time. A small red flame, a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design, re-lit before the beaten copper doors of a tabernacle. This flame, which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out: the flame burns again for other soldiers far from homefarther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians. And there I found it that morning, burning anew among the old stones.
Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. His books include Virtue’s Splendor and, most recently, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.