In the literary British drama Brideshead Revisited, "Brideshead" serves as the name of an old family manor house that might appear to outsiders such as young Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), or the American film audience, to be about the same size and age as Vatican City. Charles, an art student at Oxford, discovers Brideshead to be a similarly pope-worthy repository for classical artwork, and, in its own way, a stronghold for Catholicism.
The house's aristocratic family is so renowned and established that it gives off its own light and gravitational pull like a dying sun. Charles first finds himself pulled into the orbit by Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a fellow student and dissipated mama's boy who still carries a teddy bear. Sebastian's an overt detail in the film, which creates a romantic triangle of thwarted desire between Sebastian, Charles and Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). Despite Charles' loyalty to Sebastian and devotion to Julia, their imperious mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), emphasizes that Charles' non-Catholicism will keep him on the outside.
Julian Jarrold directs a smart and compelling version of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel, which tempered the author's trademark satirical cynicism with compassion. The cinematic Brideshead Revisited can't escape the shadow of 1981's 11-part British miniseries, one of the small screen's finest, richest adaptations of a literary work. Goode gives Charles a handsome melancholy and makes a fine surrogate for the audience. He doesn't, however, convey the character's deep hunger for love and artistic beauty, which Jeremy Irons could communicate in a single sustained glance. Similarly, Whishaw (one of I'm Not There's Bob Dylans) captures Sebastian's weakness but not his glamour.
Thompson seems too young for the role of the silver-haired embodiment of upper-class ruthlessness. She nevertheless gives Lady Marchmain an uncanny perceptiveness: Unlike the kind of aristocrat who can't see past her own snobbery, she can read Charles' character like she has X-ray eyes. She also conveys lordly entitlement as a one-way street that expects more sacrifice from others than the Flytes would ever give in exchange. Charles discovers that the family, like its Catholic belief system, never truly lets its members escape for long.