"Brideshead Revisited" is a museum piece, perhaps the most famous tale of isolation and stunted emotion around. It's a fragile story that requires attentive direction, for any false move in interpretation will result in a complete dramatic malfunction. Facing incredible odds against it, this pass at conquering "Brideshead" is a worthy offering to the period-piece gods, presenting British aristocracy with the perfect edge of contempt and illicit sexual behavior shaped with the true angle of guilt.
Away from his stuffy, loveless home for the first time, Charles (Matthew Goode) is off to Oxford, where he encounters all sorts of eccentric, intellectual types, including Sebastian (Ben Whishaw). Accepting Sebastian's invitation to visit his family's estate, "Brideshead," Charles is immediately taken with the ornate, cathedral-like castle, and even more so with Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). While the siblings are trapped under the control of their domineering, staunchly Catholic mother (Emma Thompson), Charles remains fascinated with the family, soon finding himself caught up in their abusive, controlling ways, patiently waiting for his chance to steal Julia away.
Based in the illustrious 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh, "Brideshead" has been put through the adaptation wringer a few times, most notably a 1981 English mini-series starring Jeremy Irons as Charles. It's an epic tale of psychological erosion pushed behind the icy glass of period-specific emotional withdrawal and, for this story, religious authority. It's a narrative that twists throughout time and location, requiring a steady directorial pulse to keep it stimulating and dramatically rewarding.
Filmmaker Julian Jarrold, having worked his way through a similar tea-n-disgrace story with last year's engaging "Becoming Jane," takes his work on "Brideshead" very seriously, placing immense care in every step of the story. It's not a directorial job for Jarrold as much as it is the role of a lion tamer, whipping back a hungry legion of period storytelling proclivities that have sunk lesser pictures. No doubt, "Brideshead" is the Elvis Presley of English misery, trumping its yarn of mournful unrequited love with an even heavier dose of religious dynamite. It's a perfect storm of brusque drama, and Jarrold juggles the moods and fangs of the material with expert efficiency.
Of course, some corners are cut here, as expected. The mini-series took 11 hours to explore the finer edges of the center tragedy, while this film production is only permitted two and some change. I feel the biggest piece missing from "Brideshead" is Charles's infatuation with the estate itself; a concentrated point of the story that the picture has little interest in discussing beyond starry, art-history gazes and interior urges to return. Also, the film's second half requires a specific communication of time passage that never settles satisfactorily. It's a testament to Jarrold's passionate work that these are the few complaints by film's end.
What "Brideshead" succeeds at is evoking a lustful air of desire, notably between Charles and Julia, but also within Sebastian, who indulges Charles's friendship to locate a romantic entry point. Sexuality lunges out of the script, with short bursts of lovemaking and forbidden passions, greatly enhancing the iron fist of faith that permeates the drama, confusing the characters, some to a point of dementia. The performances are top-tier all around, with special attention paid to Thompson's sublimely icy matriarchal veneer and Atwell's stunning metamorphosis into the picture's forbidden fruit.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio), the frigid English aristocracy is retained satisfyingly in this DVD experience. Black levels are crisp and respectful, while fleshtones appear immediate and realistic, nicely contrasted to the film's artistic distance.
A film of hushed intention, the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix carries the film pleasingly, with nice attention to rural ambiance and period life. Dialogue is crisply preserved, and the score highlighted at the ideal moments of emotional need.
English for the Hearing Impaired and Spanish subtitles are included.
A feature-length audio commentary from director Julian Jarrold, producer Kevin Loader, and writer Jeremy Brock aims to discuss the motivations of the characters, and how changes to the source material were needed to suit this fresh take on a classic piece of literature. The gentlemen are in constant discussion mode, with a primary focus on the adaptation process and how the performances survived under such rigid characterizations. While it falls prey to play-by-play commenting, the track is quite appealing and helps to process some of the shifts in plot.
"The World of Brideshead" (20:48) is a standard promotional featurette, mixing BTS footage with cast and crew interviews lauding production accomplishments. Informative? Not really. However, a snapshot of location shooting in Venice is quite entertaining to see.
"Deleted Scenes" (11:36) assembles some extended sequences and even more torturous soul-searching for the heart to enjoy, including the infamous "Slap" sequence. They can be viewed with or without commentary from the filmmakers.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included on this DVD.
While most films of this ilk tend to rest among the finer details of it all, "Brideshead" wishes to tell a marathon story of betrayal and the vagaries of fate. It's a convincing potion, and while the narrative is missing a few notes in the overall orchestration, Jarrold still manages to piece together a haunting motion picture of unique cinema accomplishment.