When I first heard of this film I found it hard to imagine how anyone could succeed in cramming the complex narrative of Brideshead Revisited into the 120 minute format that seems to be the norm for cinema these days, maybe as a favour to audiences suffering from attention deficit disorder. Still, I didn't expect much from Pride & Prejudice the movie, yet found myself enjoying that pretty well, so I took my chances with Brideshead too. But this time the experience was rather less satisfying, to put it mildly.
For someone familiar with the large, intricate, subtly tinted canvases of Waugh's book and the phenomenal TV-series, this is like seeing a hasty copy executed in crude strokes and garish colours. Within 20 minutes from the start Charles and Sebastian aren't just friends, they actually appear to be lovers. The gay thing is plastered on way too thick and goes far beyond anything suggested by Waugh. The way the storyline is distorted, it makes it seems as if Sebastian starts drinking out of frustration over Charles's rejection of him in favour of his sister Julia. This is a result of the extreme conflation of elements from Waugh's story, which uproots its refined psychological dynamics. Indeed, subtlety is nowhere to be found; the Flytes in this movie are a pretty vulgar bunch, and Sebastian's Oxford circle too has none of the aristocratic manners and sophisticated wit we would expect from them.
There are in this film many more scenes that made me cringe than in any movie I recently watched: the Flytes gathering around a statue of the Virgin Mary, singing the Salve Regina; Lady Marchmain coming to the house of Charles's father and throwing an emotional scene; all appearances of Anthony Blanch, period (mercifully limited to only two); Charles buying Julia from Mottram for a few paintings; Sebastian making a scene at his sister's coming out ball; et cetera.
The casting doesn't help. Matthew Goode is a likeable Charles Ryder, but way too mature and confident, with the added problem of him being rather more handsome than Sebastian, who is played by the gaunt, scary-looking Ben Wishaw. Wishaw completely misses out on the complicated combination of superiority and vulnerability in Sebastian's deeply troubled character, indeed, seems to spend most of his screentime throwing fond looks at Charles (which is just about the reverse of what happens in the original story). Hayley Atwell's Julia lacks any sense of grandeur or style, and is reduced to little more than a petulant schoolgirl; I couldn't for the life of me imagine why Charles would fall in love with her, there is no chemistry at all between the characters. I'm sure Emma Thompson could have made something wonderful out of Lady Marchmain had she been given the right lines, but alas; here she is just a gorgon, who, like others characters too, may surprise you by suddenly going psychotherapist, explaining to Charles that he is so desperate to be liked. None of the subtle emotional blackmail that Claire Bloom so masterfully weaved into her performance in the series. Most other characters could have been dispensed with altogether; with their organic ties to the story severed, figures like Blanche, Ryder's father, Boy Mulcaster, cousin Jasper, Cordelia, Samgrass, or Celia make mere token appearances.
So what you are left with is a bunch of fairly good-looking, nicely dressed people cavorting in attractive surroundings. No cliché is spared. We don't just go to Venice, no, of course it has to be the Carnival and the Lido. Castle Howard is always a pleasure to look at but hardly an original choice (and I don't understand by the life of me why everybody is constantly arriving at and departing from the garden front - maybe so as not to disturb the business of tourism? We do not once see the other side. The house was used much more fully in the TV-series.) Surprisingly, the series despite its 4:3 ratio generally has a far more cinematic feel to it than this film, which often looks made-for-TV. No doubt some will argue that such comparisons are unfair and the film should be judged on its own merits alone; I disagree. Right up to the final scene, the entire point of Waugh's story is lost. Anyone who films the work of a great author takes on a responsibility towards that work, and the makers of this film have definitely failed in that regard, i.e., they just mangled it.