Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., July 25. Rated PG-13. 120 minutes.
A movie adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's tale of England collapsing under the pressure of social change—even one that has passed through the pop filter of co-writer Andrew Davies, British TV's designated gatekeeper to the masses of all properties literary—sounds like much more fun than the 11-hour slog of the 1981 television series. And though I can imagine Waugh rolling his eyes at the idea of Brideshead Revisited as "a heartbreaking romantic epic," the movie is, often inadvertently, an improvement on that sepulchral miniseries. Waugh's novel doesn't have much of a story—social upstart Charles Ryder is taken up and nearly destroyed by an aristocratic family bent on destroying itself. But as directed by Julian Jarrold, Brideshead Revisited revisited boasts better stately homes and gardens, a marketably youthful cast, and broad winks at the novel's repressed homosexual attraction between pallid upstart Charles (Matthew Goode) and Sebastian Flyte (a show-stoppingly queeny Ben Whishaw), while redirecting the eros to Charles' wan love for Sebastian's sister (Hayley Atwell). As in the novel, though, the great, sick love story is between Sebastian and his mummy, an ice floe played by Emma Thompson as a woman at once energized and doomed by her devotion to Catholic orthodoxy. The movie is far from deep, but you have to admire how it refrains from delivering a postmodern lecture on the perils of fundamentalism and confines itself to Waugh's disturbing vision.