About halfway through the new film version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, protagonist Charles Ryder and his aristocratic friends Sebastian and Julia Flyte take a jaunt to Venice. Because it’s his first time in the city, Charles (Matthew Goode) glues himself to the window, which prompts the more jaded Julia to remark, “Don’t be greedy — it won’t go away.”
That comment sums up Charles’ character: He’s a tourist, not just on the Continent but in his friends’ glamorous, often miserable lives. An Oxford student from a staid, bourgeois home, Charles is drawn to Sebastian (Ben Wishaw) the instant he sees the flamboyant young man punting down a campus canal. He ignores his prissy cousin’s warning: “Sodomites, the lot of them. Stay well clear.” What motivates Charles isn’t sexual attraction (though Sebastian clearly wishes it were — a point the film spells out in ways the 1945 novel avoided). No, what he wants is to live a fuller, more beautiful life, as embodied in his new friend’s palatial country estate, Brideshead, and even in the ancient Catholic rituals Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) still observes. When Sebastian’s sister, the dark-bobbed, slyly sexy Julia (Hayley Atwell), shows up, Charles knows even more clearly what he wants — her. But Lady Marchmain, who doesn’t want her children marrying outside the faith, has other ideas.
The struggle between Charles’ and Lady Marchmain’s desires is the movie’s central conflict. But it never really heats up, because director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) seems less interested in exploring Waugh’s characters than in turning us into wide-eyed tourists, too. Like the Merchant-Ivory period pieces it resembles, Brideshead is big on eye candy, not so big on tension. Through Jarrold’s eyes, the past is a perpetual artistic play of light and shadow, everyone is costumed impeccably, and all it takes to bring a forbidden romance to a head is a night in Venice with Italians dancing around in carnival masks.
What’s missing is complexity. From watching the self-proclaimed atheist Charles bicker with Lady Marchmain, you would never guess that Waugh described the novel’s central theme as “divine grace.” To young men from the Church of England in the 1930s, Catholicism could appear alluringly exotic and new — and some, including Waugh, ended up converting. That allure is missing here. Though Thompson plays her ably, the matriarch is never much more than a straw woman. Though the film makes some concessions to Waugh’s pieties at the end, it never really shows us why an intelligent person might turn to a strict faith for salvation.
Lost in the pretty sets, the actors fail to make much impact. Like Keira Knightley in Atonement, Julia is iconically beautiful but rather dull. It wouldn’t be fair to say Goode gives a bad performance as Charles: There’s life behind his eyes, but it’s the deliberately noncommittal gaze of a person who wants others to do the living for him. Even when the script forces him to take action, he never quite seems to wake up. Other actors give the movie jolts of energy — Wishaw as the drunkenly ranting Sebastian, Jonathan Cake as a cold-blooded Canadian businessman — but it can’t overcome the problem of this vacuum at its center.
In Sister Carrie, American novelist Theodore Dreiser had harsh words for “drawing-room dramas” that focused on the tribulations of the rich and gorgeous: “They have the charm of showing suffering under ideal conditions,” he wrote. “Who would not suffer amid perfumed tapestries, cushioned furniture, and liveried servants? Grief under such circumstances becomes an enticing thing.” Not all period movies resemble those drawing-room dramas — the grittier Persuasion and Gosford Park come to mind. But many do, this version of Brideshead included. It turns us into tourists in a lost world of elegance and luxury, where grace isn’t needed because grief has no sting.