It isn't at all a bad time for a new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's exquisite novel Brideshead Revisited. The British miniseries is over a quarter-century old, and there's never been a proper feature. The homosexual content—never exactly disguised—can be overt now, but we're not so advanced that the crushing guilt that accompanies it seems foreign. Meanwhile, Waugh's simultaneous envy of and nostalgia for the perfumed decadence of the English-Catholic aristocracy between the World Wars seems especially poignant, poised as we are on the lip of another recession.
Director Julian Jarrold was last responsible for the nauseating Becoming Jane, and at first, it looks as though he's going to handle Brideshead just as clumsily. This film, like the book, is told from the perspective of Charles Ryder (slightly-too-old Matthew Goode), an upper-middle class striver completely out of his depth—but the filmmakers don't do enough to remind us that Charles is our narrator. The voiceovers are scarce, the cinematography (by Jess Hall) is square and pompous when it should be dazzling, and the score (by Adrian Johnston) thunders when it should be stricken with awe. Still, the acting is more nuanced than the screenplay for Becoming Jane ever allowed. Soon we're sucked in to the life of poor, desirous Charles, who goes up to Oxford to read history and finds himself fraternizing with a flaming creature named Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), whose idea of fun is snacking on plover eggs gathered by hand at his ancestral home; lecturing his teddy bear, Aloysius; and getting roaring drunk before noon.
Unfortunately, the film doesn't linger at Oxford for long, and the remaining point on the love triangle—Sebastian's sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell)—is always present, but only fleetingly interesting. Whishaw makes a fantastic Sebastian, sympathetic yet untouchable in his headlong dash into alcoholism, but Atwell has exactly the wrong look for the part. Neither ethereal (with her prosaic, heart-shaped face, she looks oddly like Neve Campbell) nor distractingly physical (lumpy flapper dresses effectively disguise her figure), Julia wilts next to her brother's conflicted charisma. It's conceivable that Julia's dullness is the film's way of arguing that Charles is homosexual too. If that's the case, the argument fails—Goode has too much chemistry with Atwell.