Monday, January 9, 2012

Brideshead Revisited: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Review

Based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited took a staggering two years to make and is the equivalent of seven feature films back-to-back. Waugh tells a poignant story of romantic yearning and loss set in the world of British aristocracy.  The story is told in flashbacks as Irons, an officer in the British Army, is stationed with his company at a remote country home that turns out to be Brideshead, a home in which he spent much of his younger years.  The stationing triggers a multitude of memories of his youth and young manhood, his loves, life, and his journey of faith and anguish.  Premiering in the UK on ITV in October 1981 and on PBS Great Performances in January 1982, the visually ravishing production won 17 international awards, including seven BAFTA awards including Best Actor and Best Drama Series; an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor for Laurence Olivier; and Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for TV.  In 2000, the series placed tenth on the British Film Institute’s 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. 

Film (2 out of 5 stars)

Brideshead Revisited opens in England right before World Ware II is about to begin.  Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) is nominally the one in charge of his company, but it’s obvious that he isn’t suited for the job or the army for that matter.  When his men and him are ordered to move to a new Brigade Headquarters, they come across Brideshead Castle a place he recognizes since he spent a lot of time there more than twenty years ago.  Charles starts remembering his early years back in 1922 when he was a student at Oxford and where he met Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) whose father Lord Marchmaine (Laurence Olivier) owns Brideshead Castle.
Despite being warned by his cousin to avoid Sebastian and his friends, Charles is fascinated by them and when given the chance, happily joins in their drunken merry-making.  It’s not long before Charles and Sebastian begin an intimate relationship which triggers some degree of jealousy from Sebastian’s friend Anthony Blanche (Nikolas Grace) who warns Charles about Sebastian’s character.  During the summer holidays from school, Charles (having no money) is forced to return home to his distant father Edward (Sir John Gielgud).  They have a complicated passive-aggressive relationship that makes both of them uncomfortable, but Edward seems to play their game better.
When Charles receives word that something has happened to Sebastian and that he’s been requested to come visit immediately, Charles heads to Brideshead Castle where Sebastian’s sister Julia (Diana Quick) brings him to Sebastian who has injured his foot.  Happy to be in such opulent surroundings and with Sebastian, Charles remains at Brideshead and meets the whole family whom he will become very close to as time goes on.  There’s Sebastian’s mother Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom) seems friendly but controlling, her deceptively simple son Bridey (Simon Jones), and Sebastian’s other sister Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls) who seems plain and out of place in the family. The entire family seems to be dominated by their devotion to Catholicism, which amuses and annoys Charles who is an agnostic.
Charles soon sees the Flyte family dynamic and how that and their religion are slowly tearing them apart and that they are all dealing with it in different ways.  Julia becomes a party girl, Lady Marchmaid tries to control her family even more, Lord Marchmaid has moved to Venice and lives there with his mistress, but most distressing of all to Charles, Sebastian starts drinking alcohol even more than before and soon becomes an alcoholic.  Sebastian gets so bad, that he is pulled over by the police for driving drunk and his mother uses that mistake to force Sebastian to accept a tutor who is really a spy for her so she can keep tabs on him better.  When Charles tries to stop the petulant Sebastian from drinking, he is accused of being a spy for Lady Marchmaine and told to leave.
Now apart from Sebastian, Charles leaves school to pursue art in Paris and gets to be an even better painter.  During this time, Julia marries an ambitious politician named Rex (Charles Keating), Sebastian gets even worse despite having constant supervision that isn’t up to the task.  When Charles returns to England during the General Strike, he learns that Sebastian is living in Morocco and is asked to find him since his mother is dying.  When Charles arrives in Morocco, he discovers that Sebastian is living with a German lowlife who has been taking advantage of Sebastian’s pitiful state for his own good.  Charles finds Sebastian in a hospital who is there due to pneumonia brought on by his chronic alcoholism.  Before Charles leaves, he learns that Lady Marchmaine has already died which makes his purpose there pointless and he leaves Sebastian again.
More time passes and Charles spends time in Central America and Mexico before reuniting with his wife (!) in New York City.  In that missing gap of time, Charles has grown a beard, decided that he also likes women, got married, and had some children with his wife Celia (Jane Asher).  The married couple are clearly uncomfortable being together but they make the best of it and board the “Queen Elizabeth II” to return home.  They soon learn that Julia is traveling on the ship as well and they enjoy each other’s company until the weather makes Celia stay in bed because of her constant sea-sickness.  While the lays in bed sick, Charles and Julia spend more time together and eventually have an affair.  From there on, there are divorces, a marriage,  a death, and more as this group of melodramatic individuals continue to spiral down the drain.
I haven’t read the book that this series is based on, but I suspect that it would be quicker to read the book than watch this series.  Clocking in at almost fourteen hours, this series is the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry despite some good performances.  The series is odd since some of the performers (especially Irons, Andrews, Gielgud, and Olivier) offer some excellent performances, while others are so bad or are so stereotypically over the top, that they drag the series down.  Especially grating was Nikolas Grace’s campy and over the top portrayal of Anthony in which he plays a stuttering homosexual, in a performance guaranteed to offend both stutterers, homosexuals, and most viewers that have to watch it. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the video below.
While I admired some of the performances and the excellent production value of the series, I didn’t like the script or direction of the series.  How much of that script is faithful to the book I don’t know, but I found it very hard to feel the slightest bit of sympathy for Sebastian or his rich family.  Even the main protagonist Charles is a cold fish who lacks a spark of humanity and keeps his distance much like his father.  Quite a lot of money was spent bringing the book to life and the locations look beautiful as does the footage shot on the “Queen Elizabeth II.”  It’s a shame that so much money and effort (filming took two years to complete) was spent on what amounts to an Edwardian soap opera.

Video (2 out of 5 stars)

I had high hopes for this new 1080i full screen (1.33:1) transfer but unfortunately it’s disappointing.  This transfer was taken from the original broadcast print instead of the original negative so it’s already down one generation to start with.  This transfer looks soft with a heavy layer of grain throughout the series.  There’s also dirt and scratches as well so I’m not sure what exactly this “restored” edition corrected.  The video quality for this series is only slightly better than DVD and it’s probably the best this is going to look unless the original negative is found.

Audio (2 out of 5 stars) 

Brideshead Revisted’s Dolby 2.0 mix is adequate but nothing special.  Dialogue is clear for the most part but it does sound occasionally muffled.  Geoffrey Burgon’s well known score comes across a lot louder than the rest of the movie so be warned.  This is a front channel mix only with no activity for the surround channels.

Special Features (4 out of 5 stars)

There’s some pretty good extras here especially considering that this is for a TV mini-series.
  • Revisiting BridesheadA  documentary filmed in 2006 featuring retrospective interviews with Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick, director Charles Sturridge, and unfortunately a bunch of people that shouldn’t be a part of this including “TV historians,” “TV Critics,” and “Broadcasters.”  They are only there to pad this documentary out and none of them really have anything worthwhile to say.  I would have rather heard more from the actors, director, and the crew which have less screen time here than these hangers on.
  • Four Episode Commentaries – Episode centric commentaries with including stars Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick, and Nickolas Grace on episode one; Anthony Andrews and producer Derek Granger on episode four; and some new alternate commentaries with director Sturridge and Granger for episodes one and eleven respectively.  The best one is the first one with Irons, Quick, and Grace which is funny and a lot more enjoyable than the show.  There’s also a lot of information of the making of the series across all of these commentaries.
  • Brideshead Remembered – A forty minute retrospective commentary that plays over a photo gallery by the show’s first director Michael Lindsay Hogg who had to leave the show when strikes interrupted the shooting of the series because he had a previous commitment.
  • Photo galleries for each episode
  • Outtakes – This is ten minutes of outtakes and there’s some funny parts to see.  I can’t image the bill for all of the champagne that is dumped and wasted during the filming of this show.  They all look like they had a lot of fun on this and the last show includes more silly string that I’ve ever seen in one place.
  • Production notes
  • Cast and crew biographies and filmographies
  • Plus a 20-page companion guide 

Final Thoughts (2 1/2 out of 5 stars)

There were a few scenes that I admired, but overall I detested this over-long arduous series that’s filled with unlikable characters.  In small doses that might be alright but when it’s this long, these aren’t people that I want to spend that much time with.  I realize that I may not be the intended audience for this as the series won a ton of awards and has a lot of fans, but I do not count myself as one of them.
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