As I watched the superbly gowned and suited Marchmains indulge in the peculiar brand of emotional violence so typical of English soaps, I had the feeling that this most recent adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s satiric tragedy, “Brideshead Revisited,” had gotten something very wrong.
It wasn’t merely the suds.
I knew I didn’t like the way the romantic overtones of the relationship between the class-infatuated Charles Ryder, and ill-fated aristocrat Sebastian Flyte, implied in the novel, are signed in neon in the movie.
I wasn’t crazy about the general lack of character development — facial tics are no substitute for context.
Paired with director Julian Jarrold’s artificial chronology, the director’s infatuation with form over substance gives even the most potentially wrenching scenes an air of being stolen from someone else’s movie.
But it wasn’t until I debriefed my friend and fellow moviegoer Ron that I figured out what was really making me nuts.
When I asked him whether the movie’s perspective tilted towards Charles Ryder’s very personal distaste for an intervening, interfering God or the Marchmain family’s insular and idiosyncratic Catholic, Ron said he thought the film made a better argument for atheism.
Is Waugh spinning in his grave?
Or would he see this caricature of his novel as the shoddy bow modernity pays to tradition?
Although, at the end of his life, Waugh was very disturbed by Vatican II reforms, there is nothing vaguely ambivalent about his point of view on faith in “Brideshead Revisited.”
This 1945 novel is steeped in Catholic notions of guilt and grace, desire and desolation.
If, as Waugh famously asserted, contemporary men and women must choose between Christianity and Chaos, it is clear which side he comes down on. For him, faith is the reality against which all contending claimants must be measured.
When his characters choose (through their own free will) to ignore their roots in an orderly creation, cruel consequences will often follow.
It has been said by critics that Waugh’s character’s get away from him, become more complex in their motives and more appealing in their misbehavior than perhaps he intended.
Fully aware of the power of desire, whether it is for romantic love, property, or oblivion, Waugh lets his characters indulge their appetites-and then asks them to choose.
There are no real saints-and even sinners have a chance to redeem themselves.
Bruised by her husband’s desertion and her son’s addiction, the pious and austere Lady Marchmain is given much more humane treatment by Waugh than she gets from the filmmakers.
While in the book Ryder, her natural antagonist, is a rather ambiguous and sometimes disturbing figure, the movie casts him as the voice of reason in a world of superstitious piety that he battles, but cannot quite bring himself to ignore.
Given their rather glib treatment of faith and non-belief, the filmmakers were wise to ignore the complexity of the climactic scene between Charles and Julia.
Coming in the wake of her father’s deathbed reception into the good graces of the Catholic Church, it is one both of resolution and of destruction.
Charles himself describes it an “avalanche.”
“I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again,” says Julia. “But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy.”
Tough stuff. There are times when even readers most sympathetic to the writer’s pessimistic view of the human condition may want to say “if this is mercy, give me judgment instead.”
Waugh’s dark vision of alienation and grace was treated by some of his contemporaries as rather a medieval relic itself.
Jarrold doesn’t even really do it the honor of engaging it.
Faith becomes a bit player, a limp remnant of an earlier age, to be tolerated if not endorsed-like a slightly demented cousin at a Thanksgiving dinner.
Yet for those of Waugh’s modern readers who know what it is to be enduringly bad, and to be in desperate need of supernatural help, the “avalanche” that overtakes Charles Ryder has the ring of a half-acknowledged truth.
An adaptation of the book that honored its writer (note that I have avoided mentioning the more subtle, nuanced and successful 1981 mini-series until now), would have stripped away some of the pretty clothes and allowed us to peer into the still-vital heart of Waugh’s chronicle of moral, class and spiritual warfare.
There is never any doubt about who, or what, will win in the end.
But it is a victory that costs Charles, as it costs those of us who profess faith in Christ, pretty much all we have to offer.
Elizabeth E. Evans is a freelance writer, columnist and Episcopal priest who lives and writes in Glenmoore, Pa.