Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009

The Real Brideshead

By David Luhrssen
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I have been a good sport about the 2008 feature film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, both when it came to theaters last summer and to DVD last month. But now someone was nice enough to send me “Brideshead Revisited: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” a DVD set of the 11-episode British television adaptation from 1982 (which I hadn’t seen in years) plus interesting bonus features. I stand rebuked: the big screen version shrivels in comparison to its small screen predecessor. By comparison, the movie is a paltry thing.

As I already pointed out in my reviews of the movie, a 10-hour mini series has the opportunity to include virtually everything of importance from Evelyn Waugh’s novel of faith and loss, grace and degradation, morals and mores. A two-hour film inevitably must pick and chose and condense, and what director Julian Jarrold chose to emphasize was the erotic-romantic relationship between two young men at Oxford in the 1920s while condensing the rich context of an aristocratic order declining into a boring bourgeois society.

But simply setting aside 10 hours of screen time to tell Waugh’s story insures nothing. Fortunately, bunglers and ignoramuses were banned from the set of the television production. Every note of the 11 episodes sounds true, starting with the melancholy yearning of the chamber music theme. The historical detailing is perfect. And unlike the movie cast, who gave a Cliffs Notes rendition of their characters, the mini-series actors delivered their roles with total empathy. Apparently they not only read the book, they understood it. One expects no less from Jeremy Irons, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier.

One hopes the recent film will prompt viewers to seek out “Brideshead Revisited: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” and—needless to add—the book itself. Of course, they same could be said for a YouTube rendition of Macbeth, complete with a death metal soundtrack. It might encourage curiosity about Shakespeare, but it won’t be the classic interpretation.

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