Brideshead Revisted (1981): a review


I just finished watching Brideshead Revisited, the TV miniseries. Yes, all 659 minutes of it; I watched it all. I borrowed the DVD’s from a dear friend who often spoke of it fondly. His enthusiasm made me curious about it. I remembered it being buzzed about over 30 years ago. I was a bit too young in 1981 for it to capture my attention. Just as well, this was not made for me.

I love period dramas with their lush countrysides, exquisitely furnished stately homes. gorgeous costumes, old fashioned language and social conventions. However, these thing alone do not make compelling television. It was a struggle (I failed) to give this production my undivided attention for all 11 episodes.

For the uninitiated, Brideshead Revisited was told in flashback. Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) was a British soldier during WW2 who found himself in the English countryside with his regimen as they  set up camp in a stately castle. The estate was the titular Brideshead, a familiar place to Charles, as it was the home of his Oxford mate Sebastian Flyte and his doomed family. From that point, Charles narrated the story  which started 20 years earlier, of  his days at Oxford, his history with Sebastian and the Flyte family and their troubled relationships with each other and their Catholic faith. Charles and the Flytes became estranged and Charles got a life (or so we are told). Then 10 years later, Charles encountered Sebastian’s sister Julia and again became embroiled in the Flyte family’s affairs.

I found some aspects of the miniseries of interest. I was fascinated by the portrayal of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship. It was heavily implied that they were more than just friends; the use of the word love, I believe was deliberate. I refuse to get into a debate about this opinion. Suffice it to say that it is not explicitly stated. However the conflict between Sebastian’s sexuality and religion was a logical explanation for his character’s deteriorating behaviour. Since homosexuality was illegal at the time the source novel was written and the author, Evelyn Waugh was reported to have had sexual relationships with both men and women,  I believe that implied (rather than explicit) major themes of homosexuality and bisexuality were not outside the realm of possibility. Charles subsequent marriage to Cecilia and his relationship with Julia suggested that he was bisexual.

The cast was top notch. Beyond Jeremy Irons’ subtle performance, there were great performances by Anthony Andrews as Sebastian and cameos by veterans Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. The filming locations were lovely, taking us from the English countryside to Italy over to Malta (doubling for Morocco).

Unfortunately, those interesting themes, great performances and exotic locales did not add up to compelling TV. The use of narration was so heavy handed, I might as well have been reading a book. For such a long miniseries, not much of interest happens. I watched some rich people live pretty boring lives, struggle with their faith and it was hard for me to care. The main characters were neither likeable, relatable, clever nor interesting. The narrative leapt through time rendering a perfunctory air to what was depicted on screen. Any character development was glossed over or worse narrated to me as fact rather than allowing it to evolve organically on screen. The story was quite dour at times with infrequent moments of levity (Charles’ father played by John Gielgud, Anthony Blanche played by Nickolas Grace provided the welcome rare interludes).

I can handle slow story telling (Mad Men diehard fan here), but this really dragged and there was very little to hold my interest. I soon found myself  chopping vegetables for dinner, cleaning the blinds and doing other mindless chores as I watched.

I had not read the book, but my friend assured me that this miniseries was a very faithful adaptation. I guess I will never read the book.




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