Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Directed by Charles Sturridge & Michael Lindsay-Hogg

This is a wonderful 3 DVD set that is frustratingly flawed – though not for lack of trying to overcome those flaws. Beginning with the annoyances (to get them quickly out of the way), there are chiefly two.

The first is the overall quality. Despite the restoration efforts, which were apparently considerable, the quality is generally marred by the fact the series was shot in 16mm, so the crispness we’ve become accustomed to in contemporary film is lacking.

Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons as Sebastian and Charles.

This is especially frustrating in the earlier parts of the series because the story in these parts really cries out for a clean, crisp image as they evoke a somewhat fantastic, nostalgically remembered youth.

On the other hand, there are parts where the 16mm stock actually works to the story’s advantage, especially in sunlit, outdoor scenes where it helps to evoke something imperfectly remembered. You don’t really want something too perfect because these are memories, not reality.

The other flaw is the result of film that was rather neglected; something not well preserved. In some cases, the quality is quite degraded, such as the first scene of Charles (Jeremy Irons) meeting Nanny Hawkins (Mona Washbourne).

This scene is very grainy and quite obvious in the context of the scenes it is cut with.

Brideshead aka Castle Howard.

However, it is still Brideshead Revisited, first seen in 1981. And it’s just as good.

It’s remarkably true to the Evelyn Waugh novel, especially in the first parts (Et In Arcadia Ego) which help establish the characters of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews).

It’s really a platonic homosexual relationship they have but, I think, the key is the first word, platonic.

It’s the innocence of the relationship that draws us and the foreboding of what is to come that holds us. I can’t think of many stories, film or otherwise, that present friendship so well, especially the friendships of youth.

The tragic aspect of the story is what becomes of those friendships due to time and, for lack of a better word, life. Again, book and film describe it beautifully.

(It’s interesting that in the later episodes the use of 16mm film actually helps to evoke a gritty realism appropriate to what the story is about.)

Anthony Andrews as Sebastian.

There are also quite a few of gems within the series such as the performances of a wonderful supporting cast.

In particular, there are John Gielgud (who gives a superbly dry performance providing humour) and Laurence Olivier (especially in the closing instalments when, as Lord Marchmain, he is dying.)

I loved the novel of Brideshead Revisited long before I saw the series back in ’81. When the series was broadcast, I loved it too. Seeing it now, more than 20 years later, I still love it. I think it does what the best television always does which is to tell compelling human stories through exceptional character depictions and interrelationships. There aren’t many movies that do this as well.

(Originally written & published in 2002. The review refers to the 2002 edition of Brideshead revisited, not the 2006 release of the 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition. This latter edition is likely similar to the 2002 release in terms of video quality however the special features are probably different.)

Sebastian, Julia (Diana Quick) and Charles.

Brideshead Revisited (25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition)

Leave a Reply