Friday, June 12, 2009

Brideshead Revisited

A childhood favourite book was Wind in the Willows. It fixed into my consciousness an acceptance of an idyllic English country lifestyle, picnics and hampers and a sense of a possible but unattainable glory. At the same time there was a dark side, the wild wood with its stoats and weasels.

It understandably was a good seedbed for the novels of Evelyn Waugh which I discovered in my undergraduate days. Those between-wars high jinks so remote from my ordered existence were this young man’s escapist fancy. I read Brideshead Revisted, the best, several times. It fixed another image into my mind – the splendours of Oxford. I confess to being disappointed when I finally visited Oxford. Waugh’s splendid prose o’er did the reality. Possibly too his snobbery had lost some of its appeal.

The other appeal of the novel was its emphasis upon Catholicism and the element of divine grace and reconciliation. At the time I had several good Catholic friends and to this budding Presbyterian minister with his serious doubts they seemed rocklike in their casual certainty. Waugh, a convert himself, mined this seam magnificently. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory sang the same song.

Last night we watched it on DVD. Unlike the brilliant 1981 TV series this movie concentrated not on the flamboyant Oxford high life but the Catholicism. The secular values of agnostic Charles Ryder are challenged by the aristocratic Marchmain family, a severely flawed but deeply religious family. At the beginning Ryder finds himself, now in the army, sometime during the Second World War billeted back at Brideshead the palatial family home.

The film then jumped straight into the scene which when I first read the novel had made a tremendous impact, it was one of the most erotic scenes I’d ever read. In the novel it’s much further on that Charles and Julia come together. The film didn’t dwell on the Oxford scenes, it quickly cut to the enchantment of Brideshead.

The novel is rich and sprawling. Despite brilliant camera work the film does not have the time that it deserves to tell the nuances of Waugh’s work. That luxury the mini-series did have.

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