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  • Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

Film Reviews 2008

Brideshead Revisited and its Catholicism - SIGNIS STATEMENT

Starring Emma Thompson, Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell, Ben Whishaw and Michael Gambon. Directed by Julian Jarrold
Running Time: 133 mins
Rated: Rated PG (mild sexual references, themes and nudity)
Evelyn Waugh wrote this novel in 1945, a strong departure from the barbed satires that he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a more serious treatment of British society between the wars. Not that it was a cross-section of society. The locations for the story were an ancestral home, Oxford University, middle-class Paddington, Venice and a transatlantic luxury liner. It has often been said that, while Waugh did not belong to this upper class, he felt himself drawn to it even as he attacked it.

However, what makes Brideshead Revisited (the novel, the classic television series of 1981 and this version) of great interest to audiences who think about society, class differences, aristocratic snobbery and presumptions, is the religious dimension from Waugh, the convert to Catholicism. The family at the centre of the story is Catholic. Their Catholicism was not typical of the broader sweep of Catholicism at that time (no Irish working class Catholics here, no Catholic Action, no indication of the renaissance in writing, publishing, preaching of the period). Rather, this was the religion of the Recusant families with their steadfast stances against the Reformation, persecuted in penal times and now taking a stance against secularism.

This is all observed by the audience through the eyes of young atheist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, looking and sounding like a young Jeremy Irons who played Charles in the series). The Catholicism that is gradually revealed does not appeal to him, indeed comes to repel him. The rituals and devotions of the times evoke memories for older Catholics but may not mean much to younger Catholics at all: rosary beads, holy water and genuflections, the family chapel with night prayer and the singing of the Salve Regina, the family chaplain, the last rites. These are some of the practices.

However, the religious stances seem to be more an inheritance that is as ingrained as class superiority. Which means that the ideology of belief imposes itself as the right and only way of life. The screenplay has much God-talk but Charles is very critical of it. This faith is personified in Lady Marchmain (an excellent Emma Thompson) who could serve as a metaphor for 'Mother Church', so protecting her children and determined to achieve good for them despite themselves. This means a hard religion, with harsh judgments, which drives her children away from her, except for her eldest son who replicates his mother. Hayley Atwell is Julia, a woman of low self-esteem, trapped in moral quandaries of marriage and love. Ben Whishaw is Sebastian, homosexual and alcoholic, in love with Charles, blaming his mother but, maybe finding some salvation, in serving others in his later life.

Michael Gambon plays Lord Marchmain, resentful of his wife's control, who has given up family and faith to live in Venice with his mistress (Greta Scacchi). Yet, the film keeps raising faith questions as he comes back to die in Brideshead and his family insist on the ministrations of the priest.

The love of Brideshead, the experience of the family, his affection for Sebasitan, his love for Julia, the clashes with Lady Marchmain and his condescension towards his father (Patrick Malahide) and his being ousted from Brideshead all mean that Charles has to consider seriously this religion and belief (no matter how guilt-ridden it is). He has to be a doubting atheist - symbolised by his not extinguishing the chapel candle at the end.

Literary adaptations are always a problem: what to include, what to omit, how to communicate the thrust of the original in a cinematic interpretation. Those unfamiliar with novel and series may see the film as yet another English heritage story, with lavish settings (and the Howard stately home is magnificent, Oxford looks wonderful as does Venice). Whether the film is, as some audiences have felt, an attack on Catholicism (or, at least, this narrower version of Catholicism) or not, films like this offer an opportunity for reflection and are a challenge to believers.

IconOut October 23

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.