Julian Jarrold | 133 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13
I’ve not seen the miniseries and I’ve not read the book, but I do know that both are considerably longer than Jarrold’s two-and-a-quarter hours film. So why does it feel so slow? Perhaps it’s the pair of opening flashforwards (easier to refer to them as that than to the majority of the film as one great big flashback), an overused technique these days that here serves no purpose whatsoever: there’s no additional insight on events that follow (or, rather, precede) by placing these snippets at the start, and there’s no new perspective on the snippets when we reach them chronologically (except that, second time round, we actually know who the characters are). It’s the most niggling fault in a film that, like my just-reviewed WALL-E, is of two halves.
The first is very good. It’s entertainingly written and performed, firmly in the tradition of the ‘heritage’ films and TV series that Britain churned out through the ’80s and ’90s — it’s the natural successor to the work of Merchant-Ivory, who of course produced the tonally-similar (at least at first) A Room With a View, which makes this all seem very appropriate. As Sebastian, Ben Whishaw is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best of the three leads. When he’s off screen you miss him, and the point at which Sebastian leaves the story is arguably when things go off the boil. As Charles, Matthew Goode by and large holds his own — handy really, as he is definitely the centre of the film. Emma Thompson is as you’d expect her to be, which is to say she’s pretty good but ultimately it’s all rather familiar from her other performances.
The second half is where the film falls apart. The focus shifts from Charles and Sebastian’s friendship/possible homosexuality, to Charles and Julia’s love affair. The latter seems to come from nowhere and never takes off, consequently making it hard to accept the lengths they’re prepared to stretch to in order to make it work when they’re finally reunited years later. The plot slowly slides into darker and bleaker territory, needlessly dragging small characters back into proceedings to kill them off and finally pushing towards an Atonement-esque World War II epilogue. Some or all of this is obviously derived from the source, but considering the praise garnered by the novel and miniseries I presume it’s made to work there. Here it doesn’t.
An hour-and-a-half in I couldn’t understand what story there was left to tell, and I continued to be bemused by the sudden import of Charles and Julia’s relationship as the next hour dragged by. It’s a shame, because Brideshead starts out so promisingly and enjoyably, but once it begins to slide it never recovers.