[Screen It]

(2008) (Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw) (PG-13)

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Drama: A pre-WWII era college student becomes involved with an aristocratic family ruled by an ultra-religious matriarch.
It's the 1920s and Charles Ryder (MATTHEW GOODE), who lives with his widowed father, Edward (PATRICK MALAHIDE), in a humble home in a working class area of London, is headed off to Oxford University. There, he meets and is quickly befriended by Sebastian (BEN WHISHAW), the youngest son of Lord (MICHAEL GAMBON) and Lady Marchmain (EMMA THOMPSON). Now divorced, Lord Marchmain lives in Venice with his lover, Cara (GRETA SCACCHI), while Lady Marchmain rules the roost at Brideshead, the family's ancestral home.

Having fallen in love with Charles, Sebastian wants to keep him all to himself, but can't prevent him from meeting his mother, older brother Bridley (ED STOPPARD), his younger sister Cordelia (FELICITY JONES) and her older sibling, Julia (HAYLEY ATWELL), who quickly draws both Charles' eye and heart. But Lady Marchmain will have no part of that, mostly due to her strong religious beliefs that mean Julia can only marry another Catholic, and not an atheist like Charles.

However, she keeps the young man around mainly to watch over Sebastian whose lifestyle, including his heavy drinking, is highly troubling to her. That, however, leads to a trip to Venice to visit Lord Marchmain and Cara, which allows for Charles and Julia's feelings to come to a head. When Sebastian catches them, that forever changes the dynamics of Charles' relationships with the various family members.

With time passing, Julia finds herself with opportunistic businessman Rex Mottram (JONATHAN CAKE) while Charles ends up with Celia (ANNA MADELEY). Yet, the fact that they can't hide their feelings leads to developments the young man and the Marchmain clan never could have imagined.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Let's face it, storytelling is a gift, regardless of whether the tale is original fiction, an adaptation of a pre-existing work, or just the simple recounting of something that earlier occurred. While it's somewhat sad that most people are at best adequate with such skills, the positive thing is that those who are good at it can entertain those who aren't.

The problem with the former is that such issues don't prevent them from telling their story, often resulting in the willing or captive audience having to sit through a less than fulfilling experience. After all, who hasn't had to endure someone's recounting of something that previously occurred, only to realize or at least sense that the tale is arriving in some sort of altered and/or abbreviated form.

The latter will likely come to mind while watching "Brideshead Revisited," director Julian Jarrold's take on Evelyn Waugh's novel, "Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder." And that's possible even without being familiar with the original 1945 work or the 11-episode, 650+ minute British TV mini-series adaptation from 1981 that starred the likes of Jeremy Irons, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier.

In full disclosure, while being familiar with the existence of both, I've never read the novel nor seen the TV series. Yet, while watching this handsomely staged and decently acted 100-some minute film, things felt truncated, as if just the highlights of a more grandiose story were present. Viewer opinion might vary on such matters, but that left yours truly with the impression that a far meatier and thus likely more interesting tale exists in those other forms.

While certainly not a fatal flaw, the abridgment will likely leave some viewers (especially fans of the novel and/or mini-series) feeling a bit cheated as the story -- adapted by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies -- quickly segues from one important plot point and locale to the next. Although that does force the viewer to use their imagination to fill in the obvious gaps and blanks, it thus also serves as somewhat of a distraction.

And that's especially true regarding its most obvious thematic point, a seemingly love-hate relationship with religion and particularly Catholicism. The protagonist (played here by the perfectly cast Matthew Goode) is a self-admitted atheist who finds himself in the company of an aristocratic family that's both bound by but also torn asunder by its religious underpinnings.

At first glance, the story would seem to be indicting the issues of the latter. Charles Ryder ends up hanging out with Sebastian (an equally convincing Ben Whishaw), the alcoholic and gay black sheep of the Flyte family whose grandiose estate gives the story its title. His mother, a very chilling Emma Thompson, is a devout Catholic and she's obviously distressed by her son's choices in life, but seems to think she can fix them.

Of course, her actions have lead Sebastian's sister (Hayley Atwel) to be conflicted and ultimately controlled by guilt, while also serving earlier (before the story begins) to drive away her husband (Michael Gambon) both from their home and the religion he converted to for the sake of his now defunct marriage.

With the latter's hatred for what his wife's religion did to their family and the protagonist seemingly poised to further rock the boat by befriending (and maybe more) Sebastian and then falling for his sister, one would sense that the tale was about the comeuppance of such piety. Yet, much to Charles' shock, the flawed and damaged characters make choices that surprise him, and thus likely as well, the viewer.

It's compelling material, and with solid to good performances and sporting a handsome veneer, the film is obviously promising. Yet, and I loathe stating the following since many a two-hour plus film is simply too long and feels that way, this effort clearly needs more time to unfold and let the characters and their situations get deeper under our skin.

As it stands, they and the film only seem to skim the surface when there's obviously so much more potentially going on elsewhere. Needing more time likely best suited for the mini-series or original novel form, "Brideshead Revisited" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 30, 2008 / Posted July 25, 2008

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