Although it will doubtless find detractors among fans of both Evelyn Waugh's novel and the 1981 PBS miniseries, Julian Jarrold's Brideshead Revisited succeeds handily on its own terms. It lacks the visual pyrotechnics of Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice, but Jarrold's movie is otherwise a kindred spirit, stripped of voiceover and other markers of literary bona fides. It's a movie of its own, not merely an attempt to cram as much of its source as possible within the confines of a theatrical feature.
Jarrold—who previously risked the wrath of the Jane Austen faithful with Becoming Jane—joins screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies in departing radically from Waugh's plot, boiling the dramatis personae down to three central characters: Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell), the eldest daughter of a wealthy Catholic family; her brother Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), the family's bibulous black sheep; and Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a middle-class Londoner who becomes entranced by the Flytes' wealth and sophistication after he meets Sebastian at Oxford. After he gets his first glimpse of their immense ancestral home, Brideshead, Charles is determined to find his way into the Flytes' world and stay there as long as he can
But Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), Sebastian and Julia's mother, wants nothing to do with Charles, less because of his untitled origins than his avowed atheism. As far as she is concerned, her family is composed of devout Catholics, even though her husband (Michael Gambon) lives in Venice with his Italian mistress (Greta Scacchi), Sebastian is gay, and Julia is a self-identified "half-heathen." Thompson might seem like a strange choice to play the overpowering matriarch, but her performance is among the strongest of her career. What usually comes off as vague self-amusement here seems like a layer of righteous remove. Even when she's channeling the wrath of God, she seems as if she isn't all there; she's already preparing for life in the next world.
In Lady Marchmain's hands, Catholicism is a lethal weapon. Her moralizing drives Sebastian to drink (and eventually to Morocco), and poisons the long-simmering love between Julia and Charles. But the movie takes the comforting power of faith as seriously as its power to destroy. It's rare to find a work that explores issues of faith without veering into religious fundamentalism or militant atheism, which is reason enough to revisit Brideshead one more time.