Demeaning Waugh’s hateful, beautiful novel

The new film version of Brideshead Revisited turns Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece of light satire and heavy sentiment into a hymn to a suffocatingly woolly liberalism.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Twenty-seven years after it received a sumptuous 11-episode, 13-hour TV adaptation, Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 opus Brideshead Revisited has now provided the basis for a two-hour movie.

And although liberties have necessarily been taken with this most languid of novels, the film’s reverence for its literary source are apparent. The characters are all there; wedges of familiar dialogue are spouted; and the themes, most famously Catholicism, are revived. But something very important is missing.

Unlike the novel, the movie opens on board a ship somewhere in the Atlantic. Matthew Goode’s Charles Ryder, a 30-year-old painter, is absent-mindedly attending an exhibition of his own art. Across the room, his attention is caught by a beautiful, if pensive-looking woman. Recognising her, he approaches. Recognising him, she disappears. There ensues a brief corridor and galley dash before the mysterious, dark-haired woman, stops, turns round, and greets him: ‘Hello Charles.’

This is Julia Mottram née Flyte, a woman, seductively played by Hayley Atwell, who some 10 years previous, before her own marriage and before Charles’s marriage, he kissed one fateful night in the City of Water. This, a doomed love affair, lies at the heart of the film.

If this sounds unfamiliar to those who know the novel, or remember the TV series, fear not, the film quickly rejoins Waugh’s chronology, picking up the story in 1920s Oxford where Charles has just started university. Callow, and yearning for something, anything, Charles falls in with a rather foppish set. But it is not the set’s leader, super aesthete and stutterer Anthony Blanche, who catches Charles’s eye; it’s the hip-swaying, epicene beauty of Ben Whishaw’s homosexual Lord Sebastian Flyte. At this point in the tale, there’s little doubt as to which side of the river Charles has decided to punt.

For Charles and Sebastian, all is fine and excruciatingly dandy up until a trip to Venice with the young Lord’s beautiful sister, Julia, to visit their father Lord Marchmain, a role in which Michael Gambon revels. In one brilliant scene, Lord Marchmain, sat between Sebastian and Julia, his arms extended behind them, as if to offer them up, captures Charles’s dilemma with a simple, allusive comment: ‘So many temptations.’ And so it proves. During a masked ball, the film’s opening sequence is echoed: Julia disappears. Charles follows. Catching up with her in an alleyway, they kiss. Unfortunately, Sebastian, himself infatuated with Charles, sees them and so begins Sebastian’s drink-soaked abjection, Charles’s guilt, and Julia’s flight into a loveless marriage.

This is a telling departure from Waugh’s story. Yes, Charles and Sebastian did travel to Venice, but they did so without Julia. There is no masked ball, no Wings of a Dove passion play, and no explicit ménage a trois as such. And it is certainly not at the story’s centre. But in making it so here, the entire sense of Brideshead Revisited is altered. It becomes a melodrama; a story of individuals battling with their consciences, torn between duty and desire, moral codes and impulsive wants.

This impacts upon that most crucial of religious themes. Because for every desire that impels in Brideshead Revisited the movie, it is a very Catholic faith that restricts. Catholicism here, far from being the root of the Marchmains’ appeal, as it was for Waugh, is transformed into the source of their torment. And if God’s will looms over his flock as a threat, so Lady Marchmain rules over her family as its enforcer. No deviation from the catechism will be tolerated. Far from the enigmatic, albeit controlling presence of Waugh’s fiction, Lady Marchmain, desperately hammed-up by Emma Thompson, becomes a caricature of monstrous devotion. Her overweening piety leaves Sebastian tortured by his homosexuality, and Julia by her love for the avowedly atheistic Charles.

‘God commands and we obey’ states Lady Marchmain to Charles. He is having none of it, however: ‘Do you think it’s better to make [Sebastian’s] life feel like a crime? You’re the reason he drinks. I just want to give him a bit of freedom.’ Later in the film he declares to Julia, ridden with guilt over their affair: ‘I’ve already seen Sebastian ruined by God, must He now ruin our lives too?’ Where the novel is a distended, slow-motion enrapture, a fall into faith, the film is a tale of vital impulse thwarted, of lives prostrated before an unforgiving God.

So what of it? As handsome a film as it is, as well-acted and as cheaply moving as it is, too, the critical consensus seems to be that it is ‘pointless’. From the Financial Times to the Catholic Herald the same question rings out: why on earth did director Julian Jarrold, and the writers Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, bother? The TV version, with a far more expansive canvas, was able to do it far more justice. So why have another version, especially one that seems to innovate so little with the source material? It even uses Castle Howard as Brideshead, just like the TV version did.

The charge of pointlessness does touch upon something about this new film version. But it’s not because it has deviated too little from the novel, but too much. And it fails to challenge, to arrest one’s attention, for precisely that reason. That is, by making Catholicism appear so oppressively malignant, by counterposing it to the liberal, live-and-let-live reasonableness of Charles, it panders to the contemporary distrust of commitment, of a belief in something beyond that which exists, religious or otherwise. Or as co-writer Jeremy Brock put it, Brideshead Revisited ‘speaks directly to many of the issues that count as “current” – religious fundamentalism, class, sexual tolerance, the pursuit of individualism’ (1). Brideshead Revisited the film is simply too modern.

To transfigure Waugh’s masterpiece of light satire and heavy sentiment as a hymn to a suffocatingly woolly liberalism comes at a considerable cost. And that is why it is missing something very important. Its name is Hooper.

The Age of Hooper

As peripheral as he may seem, Hooper is central to Brideshead Revisited. He not only bookends the novel’s present, as Charles’s platoon commander, his meaning pervades it. With his ‘flat Midlands accent’, his speech peppered with ‘okey dokeys’ and ‘rightyohs’, and his ‘business experience’, he is to Charles Ryder ‘a symbol of young England’. And it is not an England with which Brideshead Revisited’s narrator is particularly enamoured. Later, while reading of the deaths of Lady Marchmain’s brothers during the First World War, Charles reflects: ‘These men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot off at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet hand-shake, his grinning dentures.’ This ascendant breed, borne aloft by the secular religion of commerce, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, are literally repulsive to Charles.

If the age of Hooper is fast encroaching, the philistine has his barbarian accomplice in the figure of Rex Mottram. The film reduces him to crude malevolence, a man willing to trade his wife, Julia, for a couple of Charles’s paintings. Waugh’s image is more benign, but no less damning. Belonging to the ‘harsh, acquisitive world’ so rudely intruding upon the Arcadian environs of Brideshead, he is characterised by Julia as someone so ‘absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole.’ His sort could not, as the allusion to Matthew Arnold intends, ‘see life whole and see it steadily’.

And it is this, the one-sidedness of his character, his inability to see life not just in its material but in its spiritual aspect, too, that Waugh, following Arnold and Forster before him, portrays as modern man’s failing. All is ratio and ceaseless activity, calculating and doing; there is no contemplation, no intellect. The Rexs of this world are not evil or malicious, then. They, like Hooper, simply lack ‘intellectual curiosity, or natural piety’. Without at least the longing for faith, the world of Hooper is incapable of grasping just how forsaken it is.

Brideshead, from the magnificence of its coffered and carved roof, the columns and entablature of the central hall, to the attached chapel, is a symbolic counterpoint. For the young Charles it’s a haven, a world of enchantment and of faith barracked against the impending spoliation at the hands of the world of Hooper. For this, not Catholicism, is the ‘whisper of doom’ that clings so darkly to the Marchmains. And so, at the very end, with the army now encamped at Brideshead, it comes to pass. Charles thinks to himself: ‘Year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended [Brideshead], year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness; until, in sudden frost, came the age of Hooper; the place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing; Quomodo sedt sola civitas. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’

So why is Hooper is so important to the vision of Brideshead Revisited? Because without him, the Marchmains, and their attendant Catholicism, lose their symbolic meaning. They appear, as they do in the film, as little more than self-imposed prisoners of their faith. But with Hooper, indeed, in the context of the ‘age of Hooper’, the meaning becomes clear. The Catholic Marchmains, ensconced in their stately refuge Brideshead, enshrine all that modernity is apt to sweep asunder.

That this refuge, always described retrospectively, is no more, lends the novel’s languor – its lyrical, swooping passages of sometimes too-purple prose – not just its power, but its meaning. For in dwelling upon those ‘spots of time’, as Wordsworth would have it, they redeem Charles from the wreckage of his grey, meaningless present. The act of invocation has a near transcendent quality. Hence ‘Brideshead’ is ‘a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted later years began to take flight’. Brideshead Revisited, like the similarly disenchanted A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, is an art of memorial, the redemption of a vanished world.

As such Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is invaluable. Born of a moment of intensely felt reaction, it is the last gasp of privilege, of deference. And in being so, it captures something of its ideological flavour. A ruling class once confident in its ability to rule, having lived through its own downfall, casts its eyes towards the past, back to a time before the protestant heathen burnt, destroyed, and cast God from this world in favour of work and bookkeeping. Brideshead Revisited, published on the eve of the postwar Labour government, stands opposed to the march of time. A protracted embrace of the faith, a swoon for the ancien régime, it faces down the moderns, with their flat vowels and vacuous materialism, banging noisily at the gates. A hateful and beautiful novel.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, by Evelyn Waugh, is published by Penguin Classics. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Brideshead Revisited film not true to Evelyn Waugh’s plot, Daily Telegraph, 19 July 2008

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