Brideshead Revisited (2008) – Ace Long Review

Warning: I’ve read Brideshead Revisited four times. I’ve seen the 1981 mini-series twice. And for my M.A. I wrote a 40-page paper called “Asexual Romance in Brideshead Revisited”. So, instead of even trying to review this movie objectively, I’m specifically going to discuss it as a work of adaptation. And I may be a long time about it.

For an unbiased asexual reading of the film, see “Bromance Revisited” by Ily.

And for more about my research on romance, you can read my article “The History of Romance”. It gives a summary of my research and makes a similar argument, although it uses The X-Files instead of Brideshead Revisited for its case study.

Brideshead Revisited
Starring: Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell
Written by: Andrew Davies, Jeremy Brock
Book by: Evelyn Waugh
Directed by: Julian Jarrold
Italy/Morocco/U.K., 2008

How good is this adaptation?

As an adaptation, the flaws of Brideshead Revisited are obvious: it is both more heteronormative and less feminist than the book, and it replaces the novel’s nuanced study of Catholicism with ignorant and often insulting clichés. However, it’s still remarkably faithful to its source material, successfully conveying the book’s sense of nostalgia and ache of lost love. Moreover, as pure movie, it is, in its own way, very interesting, with its own perspective on faith and an unconventional love story.

The “heteronormative” bit may be surprising, given that the movie has more explicitly homosexual content than the book. In the book, Charles, Sebastian, and their relationship are all shrouded in ambiguity. Whether there is sexual attraction between them, whether it is mutual, and whether it is acted upon are all questions that the novel leaves unanswered. Although the film preserves some of this uncertainty, it invites a much more straightforward interpretation: Sebastian is gay; Charles is straight. Sebastian is sexually attracted to Charles, but Charles is unable to return these feelings. Charles is seduced away from Sebastian by Julia; Sebastian is left on his own.

Much of this results from the film’s (understandable) desire to compress the story and (less justifiable) decision to include a romantic triangle. The first half of the novel is devoted to Sebastian and Charles’s relationship, with Julia only appearing as a rather un-sympathetic side-character. It is only ten years after the break with Sebastian that Charles falls in love with her and their affair takes over the story. In the film, Julia accompanies the boys on their trip to Venice, and her tortured love affair with Charles overlaps with – and is even blamed for – Sebastian’s subsequent decline into alcoholism. Thus, the opposite-sex love story encroaches on the space of the same-sex one and ends up getting a lot more screen time.

While making Sebastian explicitly gay might seem queer-positive, this clarification actually forecloses a number of queer and ace possibilities. One is the interpretation of Sebastian as asexual, an unorthodox reading but consistent with the literary evidence. At the same time, it also weakens the case for a homosexual dimension to Sebastian and Charles’s relationship. Whereas Book!Charles can easily be read as bisexual, Film!Charles is more comfortably straight. While the movie allows Sebastian and Charles to share a snog, Charles’s confused reaction suggests that it is a solitary event, not part of a larger homosexual relationship. The book may not mention any snogging, but then it is conspicuously silent about much of the boys’ time together – allowing us to imagine all kinds possibilities!

I’m also troubled by the causal link the film draws between Sebastian’s homosexuality and his drinking. While this link is certainly suggested by the book, it is only one possible interpretation of the evidence. It’s true that, as a gay man living in a repressive society, Sebastian faces a lot of social stigma, which might easily lead to depression and alcohol abuse. It’s good that the film acknowledges this, but in doing so it risks reducing Sebastian to his sexuality. The film doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that Sebastian could be gay and alcoholic without the two being causally connected, even though there are plenty of straight alcoholics around, including Sebastian’s own father.

By making Sebastian a man driven to drink by social stigma and also making him the losing party in a love triangle, the film is arguably acknowledging the kinds of problems gay people face, but it is also replicating the trope of the tragic queer, where deviant sexuality always leads to lifelong unhappiness.

Just as concerning is the film’s (mis)representation of its female characters. In the book, both Lady Marchmain and Julia are round, fallible people with both good and bad points. The movie flattens out these complexities, turning both women into types. Book!Lady Marchmain is a “good and simple” woman who is at times a bit too comfortable in her privilege, too naïve in her faith, and too protective of her children. Film!Lady Marchmain is a controlling, domineering tyrant with no regard for her children’s happiness. The film’s simplistic take on Sebastian’s drinking places all the blame at her feet, allowing Charles to condemn her with statements like “You’re the reason he drinks.” Ignoring the parallels that the novel draws between Lady Marchmain and Charles, it recasts her as the villain and him as the would-be hero of Sebastian’s narrative.

Julia does not really fare any better. Whereas Book!Julia is headstrong to the point of being spoiled and assertive to the point of being bitchy, Film!Julia is docile and submissive. She agrees to everything Lady Marchmain says with a meek, “Yes, Mummy” or “No, Mummy”, and obeys all her instructions, be it to marry Rex Motram (Ha!), or to accompany her brother to Venice. Both versions of Julia berate themselves for their faults and wrestle with their own sinfulness, but Film!Julia has no obvious faults, and Charles is the only “sin” she is allowed, making her look neurotic rather than self-aware.

As with Sebastian’s homosexuality, you could argue that this representation of Julia acknowledges the disadvantaged position of women in Interbellum society. But when I see a three-dimensional female character replaced with a flat one, I can’t help but question the adaptation’s commitment to feminism. Meanwhile, the crucial character of Cordelia is reduced to comic relief, Celia loses what little personality she had, and Cara goes from being Lady Marchmain’s unlikely defender to one of her harshest critics. Making Lady Marchmain the villain also deflects attention away from the faults of the male characters. Unlike his book counterpart, Film!Lord Marchmain expresses regret for abandoning his wife and four children – but only because it meant leaving Sebastian to be “crucified” by Lady Marchmain. Where the novel clearly condemns Lord Marchmain’s toxic masculinity, the film seems to invite us to sympathise with it. Taken all together, these changes suggest an underlying sexism, if not downright misogyny.

What does this adaptation have to say about religion?

Both the book and the movie poke fun at Catholicism and portray it as problematic, but a few crucial changes in the movie seem to give the story a completely different meaning. I’ve already discussed the altered role of Lady Marchmain, and her vilification seems to go along with the vilification of her faith. Written like a caricature of a religious person, she’s a 20th-century English Catholic who behaves like a 19th-century American Puritan, dropping sentences like “God commands, and we obey” into everyday conversation. (Seriously, who talks like that???) While the book suggests that Charles’s antipathy towards her and her faith is the result of immaturity and selfishness, the movie seems to vindicate both.

Or does it? The further we get in the film, the more problematic Charles becomes. In the book, Charles is inspired by his love for Julia to pray for the dying Lord Marchmain, the result of which is the latter’s deathbed conversion. In the film, only the women pray, while Charles watches in annoyance. When Lord Marchmain makes the sign of the cross, Julia looks up with a face full of joy and relief. You would think that even a non-believer would be happy to see the woman he loves made happy, but Film!Charles’s face reflects only horror. What’s going on here? Is Charles such a fanatic that, like Lady Marchmain, he would rather see his loved ones unhappy than see them act against his beliefs? Has he taken over her role as villain?

And what do we make of the ending? In the book, seeing the flame burning again in the chapel gives Charles a new sense of hope. In the movie, he very nearly snuffs out the flame – and then decides not to. Why? Because of his love for Sebastian and Julia? Because he has come to a grudging respect for their faith? Because he has been shaken in his own? Neither his impulse nor his hesitation is explained. At the beginning of the film, Charles says that the only emotion he can still call his own is “guilt”. What does Charles have to feel guilty about? Does he see himself as responsible for Sebastian and Julia’s tragic fates? Or has he absorbed the original sin part of Christianity without being able to accept the grace and forgiveness part?

This ending is frustrating, but also intriguing. Yes, I miss the novel’s more optimistic conclusion – but then the conclusion has always been the novel’s weakest point. Much as I like the idea of Charles eventually coming to faith, I can’t really see how the events of the novel would lead him there. Really, the conflicted Charles of the movie – challenged in his atheism but too wounded to embrace the alternative – is the more believable one.

How ace is this adaptation?

I’ve already commented on the changes made to Charles and Sebastian’s relationship and the way Julia’s storyline encroaches on it. Yet, despite this, the movie does pay respect to the friendship, successfully capturing the themes of love, loss, and longing that are the novel’s most compelling aspects.  And, although neither character comes off as ace, there is plenty to relate to in both Sebastian and Charles’s experience.

On Sebastian’s side, he is the character whose deviant sexuality puts him at odds with heteronormative expectations, leading him to alienation and heartache. His reluctance to let Charles meet his family could be read as a fear of losing Charles as the latter slips into heterosexuality. Cara’s speech suggests that Sebastian is in love with Charles and will be heartbroken when Charles outgrows their friendship. While this is presented in the context of Sebastian’s homosexuality, asexual people often grapple with similar concerns: losing friends when the friends acquire romantic partners; having one’s attachments dismissed as immature because they are not sufficiently (hetero)sexual. Sebastian recognises his own deviance, and even apologises for it. As his relationship with Charles disintegrates, he says “It’s not you; it’s me”. Later on, he says that he asked too much of Charles. However, the movie hints that the problem is not really with Sebastian, but with society’s failure to validate his forms of affection and attachment. This is a common problem for gay people, but also for ace people.

In a very different way, Charles’s experience also evokes asexuality. Although I’ve criticised the film’s decision to clarify the characters’ orientations, this move actually opens up possibilities for ace interpretation. If Charles is straight and Sebastian is gay, then Charles’s relationship to Sebastian is very much like that of an asexual person to a sexual person. It is clear that Charles loves Sebastian very much: their early scenes together play like a courtship; the time they share alone at Brideshead is easily the most joyful sequence of the movie; and Charles is genuinely hurt by Sebastian’s refusal to return to England with him. However, as a straight man, Charles is unable to give Sebastian sexual love. His sexuality – or, rather, his lack of sexual interest – creates a hurdle that the friendship cannot overcome.

In fact, Charles may well be just as in love with Sebastian as Sebastian is with Charles. Although Charles allows himself to be distracted by Julia, there is no evidence that he cares for Sebastian any less. In fact, he seems to view the relationships as almost equal. When he tells Lady Marchmain off, he complains, “You poison my friendship with both your children” (emphasis added). And, in the film’s final seconds, it is Sebastian’s face, as well as Julia’s, that haunts him. Charles’s refusal to prioritise one relationship over the other suggests that, while he may be heterosexual, he may also be biromantic (romantically attracted to both men and women), or even platoniromantic (unable to distinguish romantic from platonic love). By this interpretation, it is Sebastian who is at fault in the break-up. His conviction that the friendship will end turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy that fails to recognise the sincerity of Charles’s (non-sexual) love.

Flaws aside, Brideshead Revisited is a beautifully filmed movie and a touching love story. It is also a film that deals with sexual and non-sexual love and suggests that both may be equally capable of providing joy and heartache. While none of the characters is asexual, they deal with many of the issues asexuals face. And, like the book, the movie hints that heterosexual, romantic union may not be the highest goal in life.

3 Stars; 4 Aces

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