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october 2008

Scene4 Magazine: Brideshead Revisited reviewed by Miles David Moore

by Miles David Moore

It’s a given that writers who adapt famous novels to the stage or screen will make changes to the plot and dialogue, to facilitate the story and make the action more understandable to audiences.  Sometimes the changes are felicitous, such as David O. Selznick adding “Frankly” to Rhett Butler’s final line, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” Sometimes they are not: the stink has still not been aired out of those unhappy theaters that played the Demi Moore-Gary Oldman Scarlet Letter, in which Hester Prynne and the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale rode happily off into the sunset.

That said, director Julian Jarrold and screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock set themselves a task far more daunting than usual in adapting Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited into a movie of slightly more than two hours.  Moviegoers who have never read the book—or, more to the point, seen the 1981 miniseries of Brideshead—probably will feel satisfied with Jarrold’s version.  Unfortunately, I have read the book and seen the miniseries.

Both as a television program and a nearly line-by-line faithful adaptation of a work of literature, the 11-hour miniseries of Brideshead Revisited—directed by Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, from an adaptation by the redoubtable John Mortimer—is virtually a nonpareil.  (In the history of TV miniseries, only I, Claudius and Lonesome Dove, to my mind, are its equals.)  With stately, bejeweled elegance, the miniseries pours onto the screen Waugh’s story of a family of wealthy but fading Catholic aristocrats, complete with gorgeous evocations of old-world luxury and beauty. 

Jarrold, Davies and Brock do about as well as can be expected in condensing Waugh’s story into a conventional-length movie; the basic themes of lost time, dying aristocracy and—above all—the burdens and consolations of the Catholic faith are pretty much intact.  However, to fans of the book and the miniseries, the corners that are cut in the new version of the story can only be disappointing.

The shortcuts not only excise important sequences and beloved characters, but change the focus of the story.  In the book, amidst a rich assortment of colorful characters, the most important are the two who are the love objects of Charles Ryder: first, Lord Sebastian Flyte, younger son of the Marquess of Marchmain, with whom Charles has a sexually ambiguous romantic friendship, and then Sebastian’s sister Julia, with whom Charles has an all-consuming love affair.  In the Brideshead miniseries, the dominant character is Sebastian, partly because of the series’ magical evocation in its early episodes of Oxford, Venice and the Marchmain family estate of Brideshead, but mostly because of the magical, heartbreaking performance of Anthony Andrews as Sebastian. 

The new movie tells you flat out in its print ads its dominant character: Lady Marchmain, played by the great Emma Thompson. brideshead2cr Lady Marchmain qualifies as one of the great tragic characters in twentieth-century literature, and also one of its biggest pills. She is kind, charitable, intelligent, high-minded, and completely unlikable; she seeks only what is best for her children, but since she defines that as eternal salvation under the strictures of the narrowest Catholic doctrine, she ends up completely destroying one and forever ruining the chances of happiness for another.   Yet as Waugh, the most devout of Catholics, makes plain, hers really is the only true path to God.  As Lady Marchmain, Thompson gives not only the most compelling performance in the film, but one of the finest of her career.  Thompson’s sheer presence overwhelms all the other actors, and she never lets us forget for a moment the sorrow, spirituality and genuine love behind her character’s iron demeanor.  However, she also is symbolic of the filmmakers’ tendency to take what the book and miniseries suggested and make it thuddingly obvious. Instead of keeping certain issues as subtext, the moviemakers state them baldly.

For instance, Jarrold, Davies and Brock send Julia to Venice with Charles and Sebastian, granting Sebastian a sudden, convenient pretext for his decline rather than the long, slow attrition presented in the book and miniseries. It doesn’t help that the role of Sebastian is miscast; Ben Whishaw is a good actor, but he is too jug-eared, too satchel-mouthed and in the end too lugubrious to play the handsome, charming Sebastian.  At Sebastian’s famous entrance scene—in which he throws up in Charles’ open window—Whishaw already looks as if he’s halfway down the road to perdition, which is not at all appropriate if we are to fully appreciate Sebastian’s fall from grace.

Even worse, the filmmakers give Julia a bitter speech toward the end in which she accuses Charles of wanting Brideshead more than her. Charles partially confesses, admitting that his attraction to Julia is inextricable from his attraction to her family and its stately house.  This is a strong subtext in the book and the miniseries, and it should have stayed that way in the film.

In almost every instance, Jarrold, Davies and Brock choose the blatant. Mr. Samgrass, consigned to a wordless cameo, is a priest in the movie, as he wasn’t in the book and the miniseries.  Charles, not once but twice, openly declares himself an atheist, as he did only by implication in the book and miniseries.  Rex Mottram is abbreviated and flattened out, as is virtually every other minor character—and, except for Charles, Julia, Sebastian and Lady Marchmain, they’re all minor characters here.  (Alone among the bit players, Patrick Malahide makes a sharp impression as Charles’ reclusive, ditheringly malevolent father.)  Matthew Goode and Hayley Atwell do decently as Charles and Julia, though they seem less adult than Jeremy Irons and Diana Quick in the same roles.  Goode does as much as possible with a famously passive role; personally, I’d love to see him tackle another villainous part, as he did to great effect in Scott Frank’s The Lookout.


To their credit, Jarrold, Davies and Brock come up with a magnificent final image, which I will not reveal, but of which even the irascible Waugh might have approved.  Jarrold astutely uses Castle Howard in Yorkshire—Waugh’s model for Brideshead and the setting for the miniseries—as his setting as well, and the movie is if anything even more opulent than the miniseries. Jess Hall’s photography, Alice Normington’s production design and the costumes of Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh place us in a world of the rarest aristocratic privilege in poignantly doomed, entre-deux-guerres upper-class England.  On the down side, Adrian Johnston’s music sounds generic compared with the lofty theme and variations created by miniseries composer Geoffrey Burgon—music that still resounds in my ears after more than a quarter-century.

Randall Miller’s Bottle Shock presents us with a more modern, more madcap but still compelling vision of earthly paradise—in this case, the Napa Valley and Paris, circa 1976.  Based very, very loosely on the true story of the blind Paris tasting in which California wines trounced the noblest vintages of France, putting the Golden State on the enological map forever, Bottle Shock is an enjoyable lightweight comedy—although, for various reasons, I liked it less the more I thought about it.

The central characters in Bottle Shock are Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) a pigheaded winery owner (precisely the adjective the movie uses) and Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a snobbish wine merchant (ditto).  Jim’s Calistoga winery, Chateau Montelena, desperately needs some business, as does Spurrier’s Paris wine shop, L’Academie du Vin.  At the suggestion of his freeloading best friend Maurice (Dennis Farina), Spurrier comes up with the idea of holding a tasting of California vs. French wines as a publicity stunt. He travels to the Napa Valley to seek out worthy wines, in the process almost instantaneously antagonizing Jim (not a terribly difficult feat).  How Chateau Montelena’s ethereal chardonnay makes it to that French tasting, against Jim’s strenuous opposition, is the crux of the story.


However, screenwriters Miller, Jody Savin and Ross Schwartz pad out the story with several subplots, particularly one involving a love triangle between Bo (Chris Pine), Jim’s lackadaisical hippie son; Sam (Rachael Harris), the jaw-droppingly gorgeous intern at Chateau Montelena; and Bo’s best friend Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez), a likable winery worker with ambitions of his own.  The triangle doesn’t go much of anywhere, but it does give the audience ample opportunity to gaze at three extraordinarily beautiful young people (four including Eliza Dushku as Joe, a friendly, sexy Calistoga bartender) photographed in the golden Wine Country light captured by photographer Michael Ozier.

Most of the laughs in this amiable comedy come from Rickman, the greatest living specialist in playing supercilious Englishmen.  Whether fuming at drawing the table next to the kitchen door at a Paris gala or dubiously encountering Kentucky Fried Chicken and homemade guacamole for the first time (the latter much more to his taste), Rickman once again proves himself a master of the cinematic slow burn.  Rickman is the cast’s standout, though everybody makes a good impression--especially Pine and Rodriguez, whose characters’ outward slacker ways mask their fundamental seriousness. 


Miller even manages, despite the foregone conclusion, to build up a good amount of suspense regarding the ultimate fate of Chateau Montelena and its chardonnay (I won’t reveal this plot twist, but I had not known of it before this movie).  Miller pays just tribute to the beauty of the Napa Valley, but he never lets the audience forget that backbreaking farm labor is the crux of the wine business.  (There’s a saying in the Wine Country about failed winery owners: “They loved the charm, but not the farm.”)

I enjoyed the film while I watched it, and I think most audiences will. It was particularly fun for me to see sights I recognized from the Wine Country, even if some of them—such as the Toscano Hotel—are in Sonoma, not the Napa Valley.  However, the film’s amiability wore thin as I read more on the Internet about Chateau Montelena and its owner, Jim Barrett. 

In the movie, Jim is a very angry man; his method of settling disputes with his son Bo is to put on boxing gloves and duke it out, with Bo getting the worst of it.  As the film progresses, Jim becomes downright hateful, spewing his paranoid rants at anyone who gets too close.  The screenplay does make Jim more sympathetic as we see the obstacles and the nay-sayers he confronts; we really feel for him when it looks as if he could lose the winery, and is forced to meet with his old boss (Joe Regalbuto), an overbearing, condescending creep.  The point is an old one: fear and desperation breed monsters, and monsters become human again once they’ve regained their equilibrium.  Nevertheless, if the cinematic story of Jim’s life makes him this prickly, we wonder just how bad he could be in reality.  We get a clue when we learn that Mike Grgich, who isn’t even mentioned in Bottle Shock, was the chief winemaker at Chateau Montelena in 1976.  The story around the Wine Country is that Grgich resented Jim’s hogging credit for wines that Grgich made.  In any case, Grgich left Chateau Montelena in 1977 to found his own much-honored winery, Grgich Hills.  And Gustavo Brambila went with him.

If a movie can be compared to a wine, Bottle Shock would be a light-bodied, off-dry, easy-drinking picnic wine, with hints of peach and orange blossom.  Only later would you notice a slightly bitter aftertaste. 

(One more note: early this summer, the Barretts announced the sale of Chateau Montelena to a French conglomerate, though Bo Barrett will remain active in the business.  Ultimate irony, or ultimate revenge?)


©2008 Miles David Moore
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read his Blog


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