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SIGNIS Statement: Brideshead Revisited and its Catholicism
London, September 17, 2008 (Peter Malone) - Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated 1945 novel was something of a departure from his more satirical books like Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop. It was a serious observation of a traditional and wealthy English Catholic family of the 1920s and 1930s, the nature of their allegiance to the Church, particular aspects of their faith and its being part of their aristocratic culture. The observations are made by Charles Ryder who comes from a middle class family, who declares himself an atheist, who is both fascinated and repelled by this kind of religious faith and behaviour just as Waugh himself satirised but seemed to be drawn to the Brideshead way of life and its snobbery. The novel was sub-titled ’The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder’.
Waugh himself was a convert to Catholicism in 1930.
Response to this 2008 film version, which did not perform well at the US box office and has been released in the UK , Australia and other English-speaking countries in October, will depend very much on the audience’s age. There will be those who have read the book and have their ideas on how literary adaptations should be filmed. There will be those who saw the 1981, 12 episode television series, which still has the reputation of a television masterpiece (written by John Mortimer and starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick with celebrity cameos by Olivier, Giulgud and Claire Bloom). A film running just over two hours cannot hope to compete in storytelling with this series.
For a younger audience unfamiliar with novel or series, this may seem just another ’English heritage’ film along with those from the Merchant-Ivory company. Not having lived through the period, they may well find the portrait of Catholicism alien to their sensibilities and younger Catholics, in particular, unless they belong to current traditionalist movements or frequent such Churches as London’s Brompton Oratory, may find that it does not correspond much with their ideas and experience of faith and the Church.
Some audiences have reacted favourably to the film. A number have judged that the film is anti-Catholic.
Leaving aside a review of the film as drama and not commenting on performance, photography, musical score and other technical aspects, the film is worth discussing in terms of representations of the Catholic Church.
The type of Catholicism in the film is very much that of of pre-1960s church. While a great deal of what the family pray, say, discuss and do bears the imprint of a rather sombre church (inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries steadfastness in the face of secular or, as the sub-title of the novel suggests, profane challenge), it represents a hierarchical, aristocratic interpretation of the Gospels and spirituality and devotions. While the characters have varying degrees of belief and lived commitment of faith, it is a faith that is part of ancestral heritage and status, sometimes more cultural than religious. Lisa Mullen, in her Sight and Sound review of the film (October 2008), tellingly refers to the Marchmain’s Catholicism as ’an ancestral edict that cannot be shirked’.
The audience is invited to observe and assess the Catholicism through the eyes and experiences of Charles Ryder. He states that he is an atheist. Lady Marchmain suggests that he is really an agnostic but he insists on atheist. While he takes some holy water and genuflects as he first visits the home chapel with Sebastian, he says he is simply trying to fit in. But, he fits in less and less. He is dismayed by Lady Marchmain’s frequently expressed language of God’s will (when much of it is her own will or, actually, whim) and refers to ’God’s limits’. He listens to Cara’s version of easier-going Italian Catholicism and its sin, go to confession and sin again pastoral practice. He respects Lord Marchmain’s wish not to have a priest at his deathbed but is both moved and puzzled by the change of heart which leads Lord Marchmain to accept Fr McKay’s presence, the sacrament of Extreme Unction (its name at that time) and his sign of acceptance by making the sign of the cross as he dies.
This is material that the audience needs time to reflect on as does Charles. When he returns to Bridehead, occupied by the troops during the war, he goes into the chapel, remembers the Flytes and goes to extinguish the candle, hesitates, and does not. This is a fine evocative visual symbol for open-mindedness - that, while there is no problem dramatising the doubts of a believer, audiences tend not to be sympathetic to or are surprised at the doubts of an atheist... As Charles listens to his ordinary military assistant and his blithe summing up of life as birth, living and death (the philosophy of the brave new world and hopes after World War II), Charles’ experience of Bridehead and the Flytes suggest that he reassess his memories, both sacred and profane.
But what is the nature of these sacred memories?
The Flyte experience of the Catholic Church is from the tradition of the Recusant families, those who stood fast against the Reformation for both religious and civil ideologies and who, at best, developed a profound belief and devout practice. Their chaplains in the 17th and 18th centuries, many trained in France, often brought back more rigid ideas and practices which emphasised the language of sin and saving one’s soul, as Julia laments about her mother’s attitude to her when she was a girl, that she was ’a bad little girl’. By the 20th century, the class system had separated families like the Flytes from ordinary people and, indeed, ordinary Catholics. There was a great deal going on in the English Catholicism of the 1920s and 1930s. The Catholic Church was more that of the working classes (and the presence of Irish Catholics since the 19th century migrations) and the middle classes. The 1930s was a strong era of Catholic Action, of writing and publications and rethinking theology, of talks, discussions and arguments at Hyde Park Corner and the like, of Catholic Education and hospital and social care. Think Chesterton, for instance. While the Flyte family may have had connections with this kind of vital Catholic life, there is no evidence of its influence in the screenplay. The family gather in the chapel after dinner, pray together and sing the Salve Regina just as their ancestors did in the penal days.
This means that the Catholicism of the film is a niche Catholicism, so to speak. And, while it is accurate enough and needs to be portrayed, it is a pity if the average audience comes away thinking that this is it as far as Catholicism goes.
The danger is also in stereotyping - which does not mean that the stereotypes were not real: the genial Irish priest and his eagerness to administer the Last Rites, the easy and sometimes glib ’out’ to refer to confession and absolution as the simple Catholic way of dealing with sin, the emphatic God language, the pervasiveness of guilt.
However, one of the striking things about the screenplay by Andrew Davies (a veteran of adapting literary works for the big and small screen) and Jeremy Brock (who may or may not have extensive knowledge of matters Catholic), is the character of Lady Marchmain, brought to vivid and sometimes alarming life by Emma Thompson, and the words put into her mouth.
She speaks about the Church, about faith, about sin, in a way that a majority of clergy spoke at that time and earlier. She has a hierarchical approach to everything, observing life and behaviour from a higher moral ground which leads to an assumed certainty and a snobbish and sometimes intolerant imposition of what she believes and wants in the name of God. She does back down somewhat as she loses her children, something which bewilders her (as it still does bishops, clergy and devout older Catholics faced with their sons and daughters abandoning church practice in the last four decades).
In this way, we can see in the film that her behaviour as mother is parallel to some traditions of ’Mother Church’. She avows to Charles that she has wanted what was best for her children, something which has, in fact, hindered their growth, Julia confident on the surface but with a pervasive fear of her mother and of God, Sebastian and the complexities of his homosexual orientation and his alcoholism. Bridey is simply Lady Marchmain in the next generation.
But mother, and Mother Church, in imposing religious values and practice by simply demanding them rather than assisting the children to grow, assimilate the values and mature into an adult faith, either reproduces replicas, stifles moral growth or alienates the children, driving them away and, in making their experiences bitter, leads them to reject everything their mother stands for.
In this way, the film of Brideshead Revisited , while focusing on a limited and exclusive section of the English Catholic Church of the past, does offer a real model of what has happened in the broader Church, especially in the latter part of the 20th century in terms of lack of interest, rejection or hostility towards the Church.
Brideshead Revisited does not seem to be anti-Catholic as a film dramatising the changes in much of 20th century Catholicism - which may irritate those who love the Church - but, rather, a film challenging beliefs and practices. Which could lead to healthy reflection, re-assessment and discussion.
The press kit for the film (not always the most trustworthy source for opinions and statements) offers an interesting writer’s perspective in quoting screen-writer, Jeremy Brock.
Referrring to Lady Marchmain: "A staunch Roman Catholic, she is the religious centre of the novel and the film, binding all the characters together and, in the case of the Marchmain children, largely informing who they are, directing their decisions both subconsciously when they were growing up and consciously as they become adults."
Brock says, "She carries the burden of the religious themes. She is the most articulate advocate for the Catholic point of view in the film and stands out because of that. It also inevitably means she is going to be one of Charles’ main adversaries... As religion is one of the central themes and narratives spinning around the central love story, the film explores how religion plays into people’s lives, how it informs who they are and how they attempt to escape it or rewrite it in order to become themselves." Brock also refers to the difficulties Charles Ryder faces as an atheist trying to comprehend the power of that faith.
Hayley Attwell, speaking of her performance as Julia says, "At the beginning of the film she describes herself as half heathen, as she rebels slightly from her upbringing in this big house and very dominant Catholic family. Charles then enters her life and opens her eyes to a new world, but ultimately she is on a journey to discover whether her life is predestined or whether she has the freedom to follow her heart. It’s a struggle for her, to find out who she is and what she truly desires compared to what she thinks God wants from her and for her. She ultimately chooses God, the greatest good and highest source of all life, over Charles and romance. But I think it’s far more complicated and interesting than just giving up man. Julia finally discovers who she really is and she is happy. It’s a revelation rather than a sad ending for her. She’s taking on a faith which is a huge thing - quite a miraculous and wonderful thing for many people."
This kind of comment on religious and church issues is not often found in connection with a film and it is to be welcomed.
A review of the film
Evelyn Waugh wrote this novel in 1945, a strong departure from the barbed satires that he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a more serious treatment of British society between the wars. Not that it was a cross-section of society. The locations for the story were an ancestral home, Oxford University, middle-class Paddington, Venice and a transatlantic luxury liner. It has often been said that, while Waugh did not belong to this upper class, he felt himself drawn to it even as he attacked it.
However, what makes Brideshead Revisited (the novel, the classic television series of 1981 and this version) of great interest to audiences who think about society, class differences, aristocratic snobbery and presumptions, is the religious dimension from Waugh, the convert to Catholicism. The family at the centre of the story is Catholic. Their Catholicism was not typical of the broader sweep of Catholicism at that time (no Irish working class Catholics here, no Catholic Action, no indication of the renaissance in writing, publishing, preaching of the period). Rather, this was the religion of the Recusant families with their steadfast stances against the Reformation, persecuted in penal times and now taking a stance against secularism.
This is all observed by the audience through the eyes of young atheist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, looking and sounding like a young Jeremy Irons who played Charles in the series). The Catholicism that is gradually revealed does not appeal to him, indeed comes to repel him. The rituals and devotions of the times evoke memories for older Catholics but may not mean much to younger Catholics at all: rosary beads, holy water and genuflections, the family chapel with night prayer and the singing of the Salve Regina, the family chaplain, the last rites. These are some of the practices.
However, the religious stances seem to be more an inheritance that is as ingrained as class superiority. Which means that the ideology of belief imposes itself as the right and only way of life. The screenplay has much God-talk but Charles is very critical of it. This faith is personified in Lady Marchmain (an excellent Emma Thompson) who could serve as a metaphor for ’Mother Church’, so protecting her children and determined to achieve good for them despite themselves. This means a hard religion, with harsh judgments, which drives her children away from her, except for her eldest son who replicates his mother. Hayley Atwell is Julia, a woman of low self-esteem, trapped in moral quandaries of marriage and love. Ben Whishaw is Sebastian, homosexual and alcoholic, in love with Charles, blaming his mother but, maybe finding some salvation, in serving others in his later life.
Michael Gambon plays Lord Marchmain, resentful of his wife’s control, who has given up family and faith to live in Venice with his mistress (Greta Scacchi). Yet, the film keeps raising faith questions as he comes back to die in Brideshead and his family insist on the ministrations of the priest.
The love of Brideshead, the experience of the family, his affection for Sebastian, his love for Julia, the clashes with Lady Marchmain and his condescension towards his father (Patrick Malahide) and his being ousted from Brideshead all mean that Charles has to consider seriously this religion and belief (no matter how guilt-ridden it is). He has to be a doubting atheist - symbolised by his not extinguishing the chapel candle at the end.
Literary adaptations are always a problem: what to include, what to omit, how to communicate the thrust of the original in a cinematic interpretation. Those unfamiliar with novel and series may see the film as yet another English heritage story, with lavish settings (and the Howard stately home is magnificent, Oxford looks wonderful as does Venice). Whether the film is, as some audiences have felt, an attack on Catholicism (or, at least, this narrower version of Catholicism) or not, films like this offer an opportunity for reflection and are a challenge to believers.