[EDITOR’S NOTE: Miramax Films will open “Brideshead Revisited” Friday, July 25 in limited release.] Bringing “Brideshead Revisited” to the screen presented a trifecta of challenges. Director Julian Jarrold and screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock had to compress and reconfigure Evelyn Waugh‘s layered, elegiac novel, while finding a visual equivalent to convey its famously lyrical prose. In a work that Waugh conceived as a paean to the power of Catholicism they had to highlight themes that would chime with contemporary viewers. And most daunting, perhaps, they’d have to brave the enchantments, still potent after twenty-six years, of the opulent 11-part BBC version with Jeremy Irons.
The reinvented “Brideshead” – and third feature for Julian Jarrold (“Becoming Jane“) — is a handsome arthouse entertainment in the mold of Merchant Ivory, an interpretation that both honors its source and speaks to moderns. Set in the pre WWII era, Waugh’s iconic work tells the story of middle class Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), who becomes entranced with the noble Marchmain family, first at Oxford through the charming and provocative Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), and then his sophisticated sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell).
The film explores class divisions, the power of an early religious upbringing (once a Catholic, always, etc), and the strangling tentacles of family – especially in the form of Emma Thompson‘s formidable Lady Marchmain. Oxford’s dreaing spires and punting are there, along with over-the-top Castle Howard (playing Brideshead, as in the TV series) and its baroque beast of a fountain where key scenes unfurl.
But the filmmakers have wisely centered “Brideshead” on the romantic triangle of Charles-Sebastian-Julia, who are caught in a web of faith, guilt, desire, and ambition. Sebastian sinks into alcoholism when he realizes that Charles is in love with his sister Julia and can’t reciprocate his feelings. Or is it that Charles pulls back from acting on his feelings for Sebastian (unlike Waugh, who apparently knew same-sex love at Oxford)? Meanwhile the “invisible thread” of Catholicism works on Julia, threatening Charles’s dream of a life with her at Brideshead.
This week Julian Jarrold, Matthew Goode and Hayley Atwell dropped into town to talk about the film. No question the Brits have a way with the mother tongue. But when Goode, sporting a navy wool watch cap, quipped that “Brideshead” is about “bad parenting,” one can imagine Waugh going apoplectic. Atwell contrasted working with Jarrold versus Woody Allen (in “Cassandra’s Dream“): “Julian actually talked to us. With Woody it’s just ‘Say your lines and fuck off’ – but he says it kindly.” Jarrold is low key, thoughtful, almost introverted, a counter-intuitive image of a young Turk director.
indieWIRE: What made you decide to take on “Brideshead Revisited” as a feature?
Julian Jarrold: I was a reluctant arrival on the project because I associated it with my parents: rather dull, fuddy duddy stuff, sort of nostalgia for the aristocracy, with no interest and resonance now. Then I came to feel there were interesting contradictory themes in there. Waugh is a Catholic writer depicting characters he’s supposed to be bringing to God, but he shows them in the worst possible light. It’s very resonant. I wanted to bring that to a new audience.
iW: Why didn’t you watch the BBC series?
JJ: I was sent it, I started to watch. Then thought I don’t want to copy it and I don’t want to react against it.
iW: Could you describe your tactic for restructuring Waugh’s novel to make the film?
JJ: A big change was to make Charles and Julia’s affair part of the film’s framing devices.
iW: You mean by bringing in at the top the scene on the ocean liner where they reconnect?
JJ: Yes, allowing the audience to see the past through the prism of Charles’s love for Julia.
iW: Especially as Waugh himself writes, “My subject is memory.” But wait, didn’t you worry that would take away from the suspense of the story? Now the audience knows they’re going to be a couple.
JJ: No, it’s a device to grab the viewer’s attention. The classic ploy of any movie, whether a thriller or whatever. Alfred Hitchcock often did it. Because you know it’s something that’s going to happen but you don’t know how it’s going to work out. I think it’s a more sophisticaed way of approaching the film than the linear way.
iW: What other changes did you make?
JJ: We made the fact that Sebastian is gay more explicit than in the novel. And placing Julia in Venice with Charles and Sebastian helped bring her center stage in the film’s narrative and dramatized the evolution of Charles’s affections from Sebastian to Julia. A major change from the novel, but approved by the Waugh estate. They were, in fact, happy to see this relationship developed in the film. In the late 40’s Waugh flirted with Hollywood about making a film. But he wrote memos with bizarre demands. And one thinks he really didn’t want the film made. He was in his more curmudgeonly mode. Also, the book presents a difficult structure because Sebastian just disappears. and he’s the character everyone loves about “Brideshead.” We tried at the end to bring him back. And stressed the quite grown up, tortuous love affair between Charles and Julia.
Were you concerned that by using Castle Howard you’d mirror the TV series?
JJ: I thought we can’t use it and searched everywhere for alternatives. But actually it was the best choice. It’s not as slickly done as other restored country houses and has a rather creepy sinister element.
iW: How will American audiences respond to the film’s preoccupation with faith and Anglo-Catholicism? Will 20 year olds get the conflict between sacred and profane love?
JJ: It’s true the film deals in a very particular brand of Catholicism – not the Irish sort, say. But I don’t know that you necessarily need to understand the nuances of that. It’s more the power of the upbringing on these [Marchmain] children. Whether you can escape that parental influence and ideology. Lady Marchmain uses her brand of Catholicism to control her children. It can stand in for any religion or other ideolgy and I think people will get that. And they will certainly get wanting to escape from Mother.
iW: The mother from hell?
JJ: Yet she wants to do what she believes is right. It’s not cynical or hypocritical. We cast Emma because I didn’t just want a frosty matriarch. She brings a humanity you see in her eyes.
iW: This is your third feature film. What have you learned over the course of three films?
JJ: You learn how to use the budget and stretch it as far and wide as you can. To never compromise on your casting. If you get just one person wrong, you can sink the whole thing. I’ll probably never do another period drama and deal with the challenges of costumes, sets, getting all the props etc. My production designer was a gibbering wreck by the end of it.
iW: A strength of “Brideshead” is the cinematography. How closely did you work with your DP? Did you have a definite idea of the film’s look?
JJ: We had the idea that we wanted to seduce the audience in the beginning. Dazzle them like Charles. Brideshead is captivating and bewitching and romantic. Then as the story darkens and you begin to see the dysfunctionality, I wanted to make it a more sinister, threaatening place. The lighting changes. Toward the 2nd half it’s much cooler, harsher shadows, more stately. While the first half is freer, with handheld camera and more camera moves … Then in the Morocco section the whiteness and harsh sunlight seemed to represent Sebastian’s inner state rather well.
iW: You and Joe Wright both come from the world of television. How did that prepare you to do a feature?
JJ: I like to think that the last few things I did for TV had a cinematic quality. Like “Crime and Punishment.”
iW: You actually had a Raskolnikov carrying on?
JJ: Yes, we shot in Russia. And working for the BBC they’re very good at getting the authenticity right and doing it on a budget. If you’re making a British period film, you’re always going to be challenged on the budget. I’ve always been interested in the visual side of filmmaking. I’ve stretched and strained against having talking heads. TV is a dry run in a way before you expand your horizons. With film you get a little more freedom as a director. You’re totally in charge in terms of the look and the sound etc., though you get pressure from producers in post. But you have to run the ship. The other thing: there still is a good tradition of quality TV in Britain. It’s quite daring and you can try things out. And you get lots of experience working with actors on quick turnaround. Lots of good directors come from TV, like Stephen Frears.
iW: What gave you the idea you could direct in the first place?
JJ: I made my own little films when I was a student. I thought, arrogantly, from watching English movies and TV, I can do better. I took great pleasure in the visual vocabulary of filmmakers and I wanted to try it myself. You’re almost driven to it, I suppose
iW: Did you go to film school?
JJ: No, they wouldn’t have me. I applied to the National Film School, which is the best place in England. It was oversubscribed, so I didn’t get in.
iW: Now you can say ‘So there.’
JJ: Yes, but for me film school was maybe not the best approach because I was able to work for TV and do little independent bits and pieces and that in many ways was good experience for me.
iW: Something about your interpretation of “Brideshead” troubles me. Charles’s ruling emotion is ambition, the desire to acquire the castle. Did you feel that was the message of Waugh?
JJ: I don’t think it’s the dominant message in our film. I think it’s part of Charles’s makeup. It’s in the book, actually. The very famous sex scene on the boat…
iW: And famously badly written…
…which is described as him taking possession of a piece of real estate when he’s making love to Julia. That suggests it’s a package for Charles. I think there is that side to him. It’s quite a complex mix.
iW: Was this cast your first choice?
JJ: Yes, it was actually. I wanted if possible to have young, not necessarily big star actors. Because the characters are young when they start as students. It was important to get that innocence and exuberance. And to understand the nuances of the British class system it was easier if we had British actors.
iW: Did you think of casting James McAvoy?
JJ: Of course, because I’d worked with him before [in “Becoming Jane”]. But James just does everything now. So it’s nice that one or two other actors are allowed an opportunity. I mean, he never stops working.
iW: In your choice of cast I was thrown by the physical types. Sebastian was described by Waugh as having an epicene beauty.
JJ: I think Ben [Whishaw], who’s quite delicate and very thin, has a beauty. An inner beauty. A very delicate otherworldly quality. Ben is one of the most extaordinary actors I’ve worked with, very gentle and vulnerable. He’s also a comedian. I have absolutely no regrets at all. I think he’s wonderful.
iW: How did you get that great performance from Emma Thompson?
JJ: I think just the act of casting her was inspired. She wasn’t the obvious way to go. People saw her on the page as older, almost a geriatric matriarch type. But Emma could almost flirt with Charles … And she has the most exquisite charm. But with the fist in the velvet glove. The part is dangerously one-dimensional if played in the wrong way. She’s very intelligent, Emma. She did a lot of research. Took the other actors under her wing as the mother and part of a family.
iW: The BBC version had a very elegiac tone, as does Waugh’s novel. Did you strive to avoid that aspect? What tone did you aim for?
JJ: Obviously, “Brideshead” is about somebody remembering. And one’s memories are tinged with nostalgia. It’s a very powerful theme — looking back at our life and how we were in our innocence and those friends and relationships we had, and how they’re all gone. It’s heartbreaking. That’s very powerful and I wanted to capture that. But I did want to avoid the danger of a film steeped in a nostalgia for the aristocracy and a way of life that’s disappeared. There’s no doubt there’s an element of that in Waugh.
iW: He was a total snob.
JJ: Yes, but too good a writer to be limited by that. And the great thing about Waugh, he aimed to write the great Catholic novel but the characters are so strong they break away from any plans he has and they live as real people and their conflicts are so resonant for us. It’s about how we relate to our families and how we can’t escape parental influence. If you overdo the nostalgia and the elegiac quality you become a museum piece.
iW: So you toned down the teddy bear stuff.
JJ: Yes, quite a bit. I mean Aloysius [Sebastian’s stuffed bear] is there. But it’s too obvious a symbol to overdo it. There was a big rumor in England that we cut Aloysius out. And there were great protests from far and wide. So we had to explain to people, No Aloysius is still there, just not in as many scenes as you might expect. You could take a few of the actors out and people would’t mind, but you’ve got to keep the bear.
iW: Is Oxford still as decadent as in Waugh’s period?
JJ: Now it’s a more rigorous education. But there’s still an element of privilege and nobility. Many industries are fed by Oxford or Cambridge.
iW: But not as much alcoholism?
JJ: No, there’s that. Some of the extras in the drinking scene were members of the Oxford drinking club that goes back 200 years and they brought in their special drinking cups.
iW: What do you want to do next if not a period film?
JJ: I’m doing the opposite. “Red Riding Quartet” for Channel 4, based on a dark violent novel set in Yorkshire. They’re sort of noirish thrillers. James Ellroy, but very much in an English context.
[iW: Last unasked question: What would Waugh have made of your film?
Answer: One can only imagine]