brideshead revisited…and revisited

Posted by on June 17, 2007

Jeff and I watched the film version of Brideshead Revisited together over the course of two weeks, in many sittings. It came to us via our friend Dawn who recommended it and lent us her DVD set. After so much time spent with the movie, my mind still flits back to its scenes, which progressed at such a measured, soothing pace, even while leading up to a climax of deterioration and calm tragedy. In the midst of our many sessions of popping in the next DVD, I couldn’t see the depth of the story, and began to think that it did not contain terribly complex themes. I’ve now decided that the complexity is there throughout, but dispersed very thinly, in both carefully framed images and dialogues, and in the gradual evolution of the main characters, who have plenty of time and space to develop subtly into different people than they are at the beginning. This movie experience was so unlike a typical, breakneck movie night for me, that I’m still having insights every now and then, like this morning while shampooing my hair, thinking suddenly: “Julia’s willingness to sacrifice Charles was not just rooted in religious conviction, as it appears at face value, but in a nostalgia for her Catholic childhood. Charles didn’t understand her upbringing, and instead of just leaving it alone, or treating it with sympathy, he attacks it with aggression at her father’s deathbed. This is what made it easy for her to emotionally detach herself from him. So, was her sacrifice based on a pure faith, or on nostalgia and loyalty to the familiar, and was it really that much of a sacrifice?” Hmm.

I’ll refrain from going further into all of my keen theme-oriented insights. I am really just writing this to rave about the very fact of a movie existing in eleven parts, totaling roughly eleven extravagant hours. Rather than seeming exceptional for its length, it seemed quite normal and necessary to the proper telling of the story. What did seem exceptional to me is a story, as movie, being given such a generous forum for the telling. I still think that the Brideshead story is a relatively simple one about the entanglement of people in relationship– family, friends, lovers– nothing unheard of. But the depth was allowed to emerge through quality and time spent that never emerges in the movies that mess with your mind and drag you in a dozen twists of plot complexity, all intended to impress (I suppose, to be more specific, I’m thinking of films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine, or The Hours, to name a few of the dozens that could be cited). It brought to my attention the fact that film making is generally limited as an art by its commercial constraints, which force artificial time limits upon storytelling. The story itself, then, has to be a certain kind of story– the kind that can be told in such a short time and still leave an impression. It has to become more than ordinary, and therefore less human because it has contorted itself into something outrageous enough to have half a chance of getting snagged in the brain of the audience in two hours. Brideshead was given the breathing space necessary to be an ordinary human story, in all its true impressiveness and range, without force. I actually think that this is what makes the film special, more than its particular themes. But conversely, because it succeeds so well, it gets me thinking about its themes in spite of myself– themes that I can’t claim to have a personal affinity for, such as the nature of male friendship and the lifelong hold of a Catholic upbringing.

Jeff and I started wondering about the novel Brideshead Revisited, thought about getting a copy to read, and assumed it would be quite long. But we found out that it’s actually relatively slim. I don’t know why this surprised me. Shouldn’t a two-hundred page story about the entanglement of a few lives over the course of several years, in a unique context, take at least eleven hours to show properly? Hooray for eleven hour movies. I wish there were more of them.

  1. JohnOS
    June 17, 2007

    Yes – the DVD box set is wonderful, as is the novel. Please do share more of your insights. And you’re right about Charles’ attack on Julia’s faith.

    So do you think the forthcoming movie will be any good ? How much will they cut out ?

  2. Ser
    June 19, 2007

    Ooh, Julia, this is so interesting. I’ll have to watch this. I have to say, I love all of the films you mentioned (Adaptation, etc.) Do you also like these types of films? I don’t think I have ever watched an eleven hour film, to tell you the truth.

  3. Julia
    June 19, 2007

    Hi Ser. I do like those other movies too– didn’t mean to put them down. I just wanted to mention them by way of contrast. I hope you do get a chance to watch Brideshead after your kiddos go to sleep.

    Also, I didn’t know there was another Brideshead movie being made. I’ll be very curious to see what they do with it.