This film-version of Evelyn Waugh's magnum opus has always been the gold standard adaptation of the grand old man's novel. How could it be otherwise, with the screenplay written by his admirer, the witty and urbane John Mortimer? There is enough depth of character development in this novel to satisfy the most ardent student of psychology. The actual catalogue of events is rather sparse, serving only to act as backgrounds for the psychological drama which unfolds in the novel. The setting could equally be on a stage, so tightly does it subserve the narrative. Evelyn Waugh mostly shrank from over-developing the psychology of his subjects in most of his popularist novels, prefering to make his subjects interact sketchily via a series of "sound-bites", rather as an eavesdropper would take snatches of half-heard, "through the keyhole" conversations, and develop a world of inference and meaning from them. In this way, the reader is left to his own understanding of the psychology of the characters.
"Brideshead Revisited" stands alone in Waugh's bibliography, in its careful painting of the inverted, dysfunctional Marchmain family and its bunch of satellite personalities, as revealed by the continual narrative provided by Charles Ryder, who is Lord Sebastion Flyte's (strictly closetted) lover. He, sadly, eventually leaves Flyte to his fate. This is done by a pusillanimous transference of his affections from Sebastion to various members of the Marchmain family, ending with final transference of his affections to Sebastian's sister, Lady Julia, long after Sebastian's alcoholism and thwarted attempts to establish an open 'menage' with Ryder have failed due to the fear of open acknowledgement of his homosexuality by his fundamentalist, controlling mother, Lady Marchmain. The portrayal of her emotional coldness and lack of self-awareness, underpinned by her castrating use of the "double-bind" is a tour-de-force by Claire Bloom.
Ryder does not come out well in the novel, being portrayed as a foppish, "fair-weather" friend of Sebastian, abandoning him to the controlling manipulations of his bigoted mother. Ryder's own mother had been killed in his childhood, and he had been brought up by an eccentric, distant, passive-aggressive, father (played with supreme conviction by John Gielgud, in one of the best roles he ever played.) This left Ryder searching for a loving, stable family for himself, and it is tempting to believe that he calculatingly targeted Sebastian, perceiving him to be more needy than Ryder was. Ryder actually comes across as a co-dependent sociopath, which explains how easy it was for him to walk away from Sebastian at the time of the latter's deepest distress, as a reaction to Sebastian transferring his need for Ryder to the need for a whisky glass. Ryder's use of the slogan "you and I contra mundum", can be seen as a snooty charm to entice Sebastian into an exclusive club of (alcoholic) camaraderie in order to disengage from a world which they perceived as cruel. Both felt misunderstood and unwanted by their familes; both reinforced these feelings in the other, in order to perpetuate the conditions of their co-dependence.
This film-adaptation, in common with all others of its quality, repays the viewer with deeper insights upon repeated viewing. Did you realize, first time round, that Ryder eventually became a Catholic? How else do you explain his genuflection and self-benediction as he kneels, in his Captain's uniform, before the sacrament reserved in Brideshead's chapel, and his saying "with newly-learned form of words" (i.e. prayers)? Also, did you realize that when Cordelia describes Sebastian as being 'holy', on her return from Franco's civil war, that her insights into his soul, with her insight into God's special love of Sebastian's type of person, actually reveal her own sainthood "to those who have ears to hear"? There are many other revelations in this novel, which will appear to the viewer only after careful review, which are the fruits of Evelyn Waugh's own love of Catholic theology, gained after years in the practice of the faith into which he converted due to the influence of the Oxford Movement on his religious formation.