Only the latest major British mini-series to reach DVD, Brideshead Revisited is perhaps the most influential. Directed by Charles Sturridge from Evelyn Waugh's 1944 novel, in an adaptation credited to John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey, Brideshead spurred a whole movement, a renewed interest in all things British. Those who remember the PBS season of 1982 when the series was first broadcast in America may recall the obsession with the series amongst the brie and wine set, as they waxed nostalgic over a time and place they never knew or had heard of before. British Heritage programs and movies took on added fervor after that. But in terms of faithfulness to its source material, faithfulness in all ways, Brideshead Revisited as an adaptation is matched only by the earlier, equally superb account of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
In 11 episodes over 14 hours, Brideshead Revisited tells the story of Charles Ryder and his entwined relationship with the Marchmain family. Jeremy Irons does a fantastic job of carrying his character from fey awkwardness to mustachioed world-weariness and regret as the story follows him from Oxford, where he falls into the orbit of Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), the scion of a wealthy, famous British family, to a later career as a successful painter who has an affair with Sebastian's married sister Julia (Diana Quick). The novel and series begins during World War II, as Ryder, in the army, finds himself billeted at the Marchmain family's Brideshead manor, which he hadn't seen for years. Carried back on a wave of Proustian nostalgia, Ryder takes us back to Oxford in the early '20s, and his efforts to fit in. As his friendship with Flyte takes off (and the show makes no bones about the fact that they love each other, though the details are not explicit), Ryder becomes consumed with this Catholic family, an oddity in England (Waugh was a Catholic convert). Sebastian sinks deeper into alcoholism and homosexuality, and eventually turns on everybody. After a crisis, Ryder drifts away from the family, marries, becomes a notable painter, and on an ocean voyage encounters again the now married Julia. They embark on an affair that causes problems for everyone. In the end, Ryder leaves the Marchmains yet again, not to think about them until the coincidences of war drop him back onto the mansion's lawn.
Brideshead not only accurately captures the narrative of the book, but also its mood of regret and memory, making it the only book in English to capture something of the tone of Proust's mammoth novel. Ryder and Flyte seem to be missing the past even as they are experiencing it in the present. All the great quotes from the book are in the film, such as Charles narrating about his first encounter with Julia and lights her cigarette: "I caught a thin bat's squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me." Or a friend's explanation as to why Sebastian has just vomited in someone else's window: "The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that, and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all." Another aid to the melancholy direction of the story is Geoffrey Burgon's beautiful music, simple, sad, and elegiac. But most of all it is Iron's narration: calm, clear, precise, sad, his narration of the events captures the tone of paradise lost. You feel you could listen to him talk forever (and if you also happen to be reading a book at the time, his voice will supplant your own when you return to the volume). The whole enterprise is almost enough to convert you to homosexuality. Or Catholicism. Which seem to be the same thing, if the frolicsome antics of our priests are any measure.
VIDEO: Acorn does as good a job with Brideshead as can be done, given the state of the original as discussed in a supplement on the first disc. According to this material, Brideshead is transferred from a 22-year-old print of the film held in storage at Rank Laboratories in London. Dirt and other problems were digitally cleaned away. The full frame image is somewhat soft at times, and occasionally blurry when the camera pans or people in the frame move. Acorn's discs of Traffick had a similar problem. Otherwise the set captures the film adequately.
SOUND: The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, a sort of fake stereo created from the original mono track, is adequate for a dialogue heavy film with an important but simple musical score.
MENUS: On the first disc, after a bit of the actual film, showing Ryder and Flyte driving up to the castle, the menu is static and musical.
PACKAGING: A folding digipak cardboard and plastic package is illustrated with lush images from the film. Enclosed is a 20-page illustrated guide to the series, with chapter synopsis and "making of" information. From this brochure the reader learns that though Mortimer is credited as the adapter, Sturridge maintains that he and producer Derek Granger expanded and re-wrote the script after Sturridge came on board (Michael Lindsay - Hogg was the original director, and some of his early work still appears in the film). The labels of the discs bear images of the series.
EXTRAS: Supplements are minimal but important for such a long film covering three discs. There is a production history in text gallery form, cast and crew info, a static text and image tour of Castle Howard, where much of the film was shot, and text about the making of the DVD.
Final Thoughts: Brideshead Revisited is a culturally important mini-series, but also a truly engrossing act of television, with a rich story with detailed characterizations that becomes as gripping as any series on television. Acorn's three disc set is a good introduction to the series if you haven't seen it, and an emotional reminder of the film for those who haven't seen it since its first broadcast.