As “The Dark Knight” is comic-book nerd holy scripture, “Brideshead Revisited” serves the same purpose to fans of a genre I personally refer to as Fancy British People Sitting Around Staggeringly Huge Mansions Being Civilized.
And Emma Thompson is that genre’s Batman. If you’ve seen any posters or print ads for this film you’ll note her Photoshopped image literally hovering like a tonal cloud over the movies’s actual stars, Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw and Hayley Atwell. That’s because they’re just rookie Fancy British People, while Thompson, arguably even more so than Helen Mirren or Judi Dench, is the Fanciest of Them All.
That her character is only a supporting player doesn’t diminish her power or her presence. In fact, Thompson’s Lady Marchmain, the sternly rigid and suffocating Catholic matriarch of the titular ancestral home, is the drummer that keeps the slow, doomed beat of this remixed version. The 11-hour 1981 mini-series pored over every sigh and comma and tea sip of Evelyn Waugh’s rumination on the struggle between propriety and passion, piety and personal freedom.
The plot — as condensed as the film is — involves young, middle-class, atheistic Charles (“Match Point” star Goode) meeting up with almost-too-gay-to-function Sebastian (Whishaw, last seen as one of a many Bob Dylan’s in “I’m Not There”) at Oxford and developing a somewhat lopsided “romantic English friendship.” The two flirt over the course of a summer at Brideshead (Fancy British People tend to conduct semi-heated liaisons while lingering by ponds and devouring little cakes) and Charles even allows his bromantic pal the occasional kiss.
Later, though, on holiday in Venice, Charles makes the mistake of falling for Sebastian’s sister Julia (Atwell). Their love, thanks to Lady Marchmain, class, the Pope and England, can never be and, on top of it all, Sebastian’s sense of betrayal spurs him on to ruin. Charles finds himself exiled and, cruelly, still connected to the wealthy world he idealized as a younger man.
It’s all very handsome and stuffy and full of astonishing period detail, as a movie about Fancy British People should be. Goode, Whishaw and Atwell make for a pretty love triangle and carry the weight of the story’s Catholic oppression on their sturdy young shoulders.
Meanwhile, Thompson and Michael “Dumbledore” Gambon dig deeply and more than satisfyingly into their roles as the polar opposite parents who are themselves victims of Brideshead’s crushing history. Thompson’s imperious Catholic block of a presence can be felt even in scenes she’s not in — think about that, the woman can be off taking a cigarette break in her trailer and still outshine other cast members — and Gambon gives a lascivious edge to the dissipated dad that would make even non-religious people recoil. As he hugs his children close to him while looking at Charles and mentioning the word “temptation,” it’s like he’s selling his own family into sex slavery.
But in spite of all that, at a mere two hours it’s an experience for newcomers to Waugh’s story, not hardcore superfans who’ve read the book and own the DVDs and follow the career of Jeremy Irons and go on tourist junkets to Castle Howard (the location used for this version and the miniseries). You know who you are. For the rest of you? It’s tea time.