Brideshead Revisited (DVD)

Brideshead Revisited (DVD)

Thanks to a technician's strike, production delays, casting and structuring problems, and a midstream change of directors, the British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited acquired a reputation as an expensive, disastrous boondoggle long before it aired in 1981. But the final result shows no sign of the traumas that went into creating it. While the story sometimes meanders and the tone varies from brisk to dreary, the superb cast and beautiful production design meld the sprawling 11-hour project into a unified whole. Narrator/star Jeremy Irons is initially seen as a grim, middle-aged British Army officer taking charge of a new bivouac site in and around a nearly abandoned mansion called Brideshead, where many of the key events of his life occurred. He retreats into his memories of the place: As a shy, bookish Oxford student in the early 1920s, he meets one of the heirs to Brideshead, a sweet, childish lord (Anthony Andrews) who introduces himself by drunkenly vomiting through Irons' window from the courtyard outside. Putting the awkward start aside, Irons and Andrews become best friends, gradually shedding all their other companions. But members of the latter's family, particularly his charming but domineering mother (Claire Bloom), make their own claims on Irons, and in spite of Andrews' mounting jealousy and depression, Irons permits himself to be seduced by their world of casual privilege, their measured kindness, and the differences between them and his own cold, subtly belittling father (John Gielgud). Andrews' health deteriorates as he lapses into aggressive alcoholism, and he pushes Irons away, but Irons' association with the family continues throughout several decades of social and political upheaval, leading up to WWII and the return of exiled family patriarch Laurence Olivier. Waugh famously commented that fewer than six Americans would understand Brideshead Revisited, and to some degree, he had a point: Class issues, historical pressures, religious concerns peculiar to early-20th-century Britain, and a panoply of unspoken societal obligations and social mores color every quiet interaction. Even during the series' tensest moments, the conversational volume rarely rises above a polite murmur; between the actors' dry, drawling accents and their vocal restraint, the words they're saying are occasionally as much of a puzzle as the complicated subtexts behind those words. Still, the smooth, subdued, masterfully acted series brims with universal themes: love, duty, faith, change, and the mixed pains and pride of family relationships. The comedy is subtle (with John Grillo a particular highlight as an intolerably ingratiating, social-climbing Oxford don) and the drama often even subtler, but the dialogue and characterization are outstanding, and the stars' quintessentially British politeness just emphasizes the seething emotions that social conventions force them to hide.

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