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Brideshead Revisited (PG-13) **½

Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell and Ben Wishaw in Brideshead Revisited. Photo: Nicola Dove.
Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell and Ben Wishaw in Brideshead Revisited. Photo: Nicola Dove.

By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

The latest film version of Evelyn Waugh’s elegiac novel clocks in at just over two hours, so purists know from the start there will be adjustments, glossings over and bruised sensibilities.

But this new Brideshead Revisted, though imperfectly revised, is not entirely regrettable. You would not accuse it of subtlety, but you wouldn’t turn away in anguish, either. In a smart move, the film seems to be aimed not at faithful fans but at an audience with no memory of the classic 1981 miniseries, which starred Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews and created something of a sensation. This Brideshead, directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Kinky Boots), is far less nuanced and takes a few painful liberties, but the film looks ravishing, and a couple of world-class performances ease the sting of change.

Set in England during the years between the world wars, the story centers on middle-class Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode of Match Point, unable to make anyone forget Irons). At Oxford, he falls under the spell of flamboyant Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a pouty alcoholic with a boatload of affectations, one of which is carrying a teddy bear named Aloysius. Another is kissing boys. Sebastian kisses at least two men in the first 30 minutes, and Whishaw’s performance is so over-the-top swishy that it’s an immediate indication that Waugh’s nuanced exploration of what one character calls ”a romantic friendship” will be discarded — along with a couple of the author’s more pertinent themes — for something easier and less demanding.

For his part, Charles is entranced not with Sebastian but with his friend’s wealthy Anglo-Catholic family, its stunning manor (Castle Howard plays the role of Brideshead, just as it did in the miniseries) and Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). There’s an older brother and a younger sister, both mostly one-dimensional. Charles finds himself at odds with the family matriarch, the imperious and icy Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), who sees him as a solid presence in her wild son’s life, and whose religious fervor causes more than a little devastation to her children.

In novel form, Brideshead Revisited is a melancholy meditation on class, religion, ambition and the end of an era, but here it becomes the story of a love triangle, one corner of which is dispensed with in relatively short order. The real barrier to Charles and Julia isn’t Sebastian but the fact that Charles isn’t Catholic, but without historical context — Catholicism was by this time a minority denomination in England — the climactic battle for Julia’s soul seems perfunctory. Nor is Atwell (Cassandra’s Dream) good enough to make us believe the intensity of her religious dilemma.

Thompson, though, is marvelous; with understated precision and grace, she makes every word count. Also excellent is Michael Gambon as the estranged Lord Marchmain, who lives in Venice with his mistress (Greta Scacchi). In the end, though you might wish they had more screen time, they make revisiting Brideshead a pleasure.

Cast: Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon

Director: Julian Jarrold

Screenwriters: Jeremy Brock, Andrew Davies. Based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh

Producers: Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader, Douglas Rae

A Miramax release. Running time: 135 minutes. Some sexual content. Playing at: In MiamI-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.