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too many wrong choices
on 20 June 2012
In a number of ways this is not a bad adaptation; necessarily condensed, beautifully shot and carefully produced. Most of Waugh's key themes about faith, class and the transient nature of love are preserved, but adapter Andrew Davies takes too many liberties with the main characters resulting in a compromised and de-valued piece of work.
Mathew Goode is a solid Charles Ryder, but this version makes him a much more ambiguous character than the star-struck observer we are familiar with from the book and famous television production of 1981. Waugh's Charles is dazzled by Sebastian, his family and by Brideshead itself in a rather pure, selfless way, except possibly towards the very end of the book when age and cynicism are getting the better of him. In Julian Jarrold's film however, its hinted pretty early on that his motivations may be murky - does he tolerate and manipulate Sebastian and Julia simply to gain a proprietorial foothold over Brideshead itself? This is kept enigmatic, but it nevertheless seems like an unnecessary cheapening of Charles' character.
The relationship between Charles, Sebastian and Julia is also misconceived, fashioned as a romantic triangle with Sebastian's rejection by Charles given as the prime reason behind his descent into depression and alcoholism. This departs significantly from the book, where Charles and Julia do not get romantically involved until many years after his rejection by Sebastian.
All of this particularly compromises the character of Sebastian himself. In the book and the TV series he is a dazzlingly beautiful, glamorous and charismatic sprite who Charles never fails to be captivated by, and his decline is more one of spirit and the burdens of his family than of something as feeble as a romantic slight. In this film, and as played by the small, slight and mousy Ben Wishaw, Sebastian is reduced to little more than a feeble, needy hanger-on, stripped of the wilful self-containment that gives him his dignity. This badly imbalances the film and robs it of one of its most important allegories - the inevitable decline yet continuing attraction of a particular social class in the inter-war years.