Swiss audiences are less preoccupied with the fate of Sebastian Flyte's teddy bear than their British counterparts. In advance of last night's premiere of Brideshead Revisited the talk in Locarno was not of what liberties the film-makers have taken with Evelyn Waugh's novel or how the new version differs from the celebrated Granada TV adaptation. "I know her by name but I haven't read any of her books," one Swiss journalist replied when asked if he had heard of Waugh.
The expectation among the thousands of tourists flocking into Locarno's open-air piazza was of a well-crafted costume drama of the kind the Brits are famous for. Brideshead certainly delivers on this level but there is no hiding the fact that Julian Jarrold's adaptation, scripted by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, is flawed and uneven. In trying to shoehorn Waugh's novel into a two-hour movie, the film-makers have left characters underdeveloped while skipping over plot points and condensing material that surely requires greater exposition. Boldly – and perhaps rashly – they have almost entirely dispensed with voiceover narration. Anyone expecting an equivalent to Jeremy Irons' evocative reading of Waugh's prose will be disappointed.
Comparisons with the TV version may be unfair but they are inevitable not least because the film-makers again use the same location – Castle Howard in Yorkshire – as Brideshead. Devotees of the series are bound to feel that the new film doesn't succeed altogether succeed in exorcising the ghosts of Irons' Charles Ryder or Anthony Andrews' Sebastian.
On the credit side, this Brideshead boasts a handful of very strong performances and some intriguing new nuances. Matthew Goode's Charles Ryder is presented as a middle-class man on the make – a far more driven figure than Irons' melancholic and fatalistic Charles. His fascination with Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) and Julia (Hayley Atwell) is driven by his desire to gatecrash their world and – perhaps – to own a property as splendid as Brideshead for himself. What he finds baffling and repulsive is their Catholicism.
The film begins in choppy fashion. One moment we're at the beginning of the Second World War, the next there is a flashback to a meeting between Charles and Julia on board an ocean liner.
The varsity scenes are half-hearted. Sebastian's teddy bear is briefly spotted when Charles first comes to lunch with him but quickly put to one side. Characters such as Anthony Blanch (Joseph Beattie), Mr Samgrass (James Bradshaw) and Boy Mulcaster (Mark Field) are seen only in passing. In a dark and febrile performance, Whishaw excels at showing Sebastian's neuroses and descent into alcoholism but he is less successful at capturing the character's charm – that carefree, golden boy quality that Anthony Andrews so effortlessly conveyed.
Throughout, even when Charles and Sebastian are gambolling on the lawns at Brideshead or are off at a carnival in Venice, there is always the sense that the film-makers have to hurry along.
There is some token homo-eroticism but the film-makers remain shy about "outing" the characters altogether.
Emma Thompson makes a formidable Lady Marchmain and Michael Gambon is dependable as ever as Lord Marchmain but this Brideshead is slow to build momentum. At first, it is hard to engage emotionally in a story that leaps around in time and skirts over what should be key events, but the film grows progressively stronger and more moving.
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There is one tremendous, vicious scene between Charles and Rex Mottram (Jonathan Cake) in which they barter over Julia. By the final reel, as Charles returns to Brideshead as a soldier, we at last get a feeling of his sense of loss and his ambivalence toward the family with whom he was so dangerously obsessed.
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