Saturday, July 26, 2008

Revisiting Brideshead. . .

Several summers ago, I spent a glorious three weeks living in an Oxford college and studying English literature in their International Summer Programme. It was an incredible experience, not least because we got reading cards to the Bodleian Library. Reading and studying there was truly one of the most inspiring and tingling experiences of my life. And while one is more likely to bump into a Japanese tourist rather than a fetching undergraduate in flannels on a bicycle, there is still enough history, architecture, culture and magic to ensure an unforgettable experience. Just don't let anyone tell you that punting is easy!
One of my fellow students was a lawyer from Atlanta, Georgia who had taken early retirement and was living his dream. He had been pushed into law by his parents even though his first love was British literature, and as a result had hated every minute of his professional life even though he had done quite well for himself financially. Now in his late fifites, he had gone back to school and was doing his Master's degree in English Lit. When I heard his story, I practically frog-marched him up the tower of the University Church of St. Mary's which offers one of the best views of Radcliffe Camera and the beautiful spires of all the colleges. When we climbed to the top and went out on the viewing platform, he took a deep appreciative breath and then started quoting from Brideshead Revisited. I still remember the passage he chose, one evoking all the beauty of Oxford, "her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days - such as that day - when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth."
He reminded me of how lucky I was - not only to be there drinking in the scene with him, but also to have been inexplicably able to find a way to live in the world of books while paying the rent.

I thought of him when I went to see the new film adaptation of Waugh's famous novel, which I approached with some hesitation as I'm a huge fan of the original 1981 mini-series which I own on DVD and can still watch for hours on end. But Brideshead fans can be very happy with this film revisitation which does a very good job of distilling all the main plots and themes. In this compressed form, the desperate hunger of Charles to belong to this family, is completely intensified and powers the pacing of the whole movie, and while his relationship with Julia starts far earlier than in the book, I think it's a minor quibble. It's certainly a cinematic feast for the eyes, beautifully filmed, again making familiar use of Castle Howard (which I highly recommend visiting if you are ever near York), with gorgeous costumes and sets, a haunting score, and a good ensemble cast. My mother and I actually disagreed over who made the better Charles Ryder with her unexpectedly championing Matthew Goode, while I still think Jeremy Irons' performance is the definitive one. We both concurred however, that Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain was magnificent - majestic in her steely, dominant convictions, with an icy stare that is absolutely withering. Ben Whishaw as Sebastian doesn't have quite the upper class hauteur that Anthony Andrews brought to the role, but he looks far more like the age the character is supposed to be, and his fragility and vulnerability are thus made more poignant. Aloysius by the way, is a smaller, sadder teddy in this version and plays his part stoically.
So soak up the spires, strawberries and champagne (with a wollop of Catholic guilt) and take yourself off to the cinema - this is my idea of the perfect summer movie. You can see the trailer here. And treat yourself to the book as well. I'm thrilled that Everyman Library has the movie tie-in edition, and they've issued it at a low price. Just $21.00 gets you a handsome hardcover with an introduction by Frank Kermode.

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