First published just as World War II was ending Evelyn Waugh’s weighty literary masterpiece was turned into a wildly successful British mini-series in 1981. For some strange reason however Brideshead Revisited has never been given a motion picture adaptation--until now. Although the story basically remains the same much of plot threads have been dropped or truncated and some liberty has been taken with at least one major character. Set in the pre-World War II era this romantic tale spans a couple of decades telling the saga of atheist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) and his fascination even obsession with the very regal and very catholic Marchmain family--now led by ultra-stiff matriarch Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) whose husband (Michael Gambon) is AWOL with his Italian mistress (Greta Scacchi). Centering around his “friendship” with the charming and adventurous son Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) Charles’ affections and apparent sexual confusion find new fodder with Sebastian’s beautiful sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). When the threesome take off for Venice to visit patriarch Lord Marchmain the romance between Charles and Julia takes off causing numerous complications for everyone involved. Rising star Goode so fine in Woody Allen’s Match Point meets his promise here making the ideal Charles a young man flirting with his own sexual and religious identity in the fallow period between World Wars. His charm quotient is so heavy it’s easy to see how he could attract both Sebastian and Julia equally well-played by Whishaw and Atwell. Whishaw (I'm Not There) nails the wild side of his character taking Sebastian much further into gay territory than suggested in either the book or the mini-series. Atwell’s Julia also takes a departure from previous versions particularly when she joins the guys in Venice--a plot turn solely invented for this film adaptation. It has the effect of increasing the tension sexual and otherwise between the three main characters and allows the film to fully focus on this aspect of Waugh’s original story. Atwell is a real find who fully explores the confused but captivated journey Julia must take. Sprightly two-time Oscar winner Thompson is at first glance an odd choice to play the unbending Lady Marchmain but she proves her worth giving the woman an extra dimension of humanity she doesn’t appear to have when we first meet her. Gambon is superb as the family’s dying patriarch with fine support from the still-beautiful Scacchi as his mistress. Young British director Julian Jarrold followed his feature debut the refreshing offbeat comedy Kinky Boots with last summer’s bland and boring Jane Austen period piece Becoming Jane. With the hot-blooded Brideshead adaptation he is on his game again clearly demonstrating complete control over the sprawling story and intertwined relationships that are key to Waugh’s novel. Choosing to focus on the central triangle of Sebastian Charles and Julia more fully than ever before is a wise decision and brings the audience right in to the thick of things rather than taking the many side trips of the mini-series. Of course with only two hours instead of 12 painful decisions had to be made and Jarrold with screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock have delivered a version that meets our expectations without dashing them. Unless of course you are a Waugh purist in which case it’s probably best to revisit the mini-series. There can be no argument about the visual splendors provided here though particularly the location filming at Castle Howard one of England’s oldest and most striking estates. Waugh’s extensive descriptions of the splendors of Brideshead Manor are perfectly realized through the spot-on choice of locales and the film’s superb cinematography and production design.
Of course 21 isn’t just about blackjack. It’s more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa’s group of “gifted” students who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently you don’t want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It’s not illegal to do that but the casinos don’t much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey what happens in Vegas…oh you know the rest. The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess best known for singing Beatles’ songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It’s not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn’t nearly as effective as his love interest but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who oddly enough is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions utilizing techniques they’ve used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his while Fishburne postures as he always does. It’s too bad they couldn’t have put in more effort. As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e. sitting at a blackjack table) the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That’s where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.
Veteran British actor Maurice (O'Toole) knows that his final curtain call is coming soon. Though he still earns booze and cigarette money playing small parts in TV movies his heyday is far behind him and his chief delight is gossiping and reminiscing about the old days with acting crony Ian (Leslie Phillips). But beneath Maurice's craggy creaky exterior the heart of a young rake still beats. That heart gets plenty of exercise when Ian's grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) appears on the scene. Fascinated by her youth and rawness Maurice takes the girl under his wing--and it's clear even before he dubs her his Venus that his motives aren't exactly grandfatherly. No innocent herself she responds by using her sexuality to manipulate him. As each learns more about the other their complicated relationship twists and turns in ways both predictable and unexpected. Whatever else can be said about Venus it's undeniably an actors' movie--particularly one actor. O'Toole gives one of the best performances of his career in a part that seems tailor-made for the acting legend. Whether he's staring at Jessie with a combination of sympathy and lust abruptly dissolving into tears of regret during a meal with ex-wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave) or sitting on his bed quietly and sadly alone O'Toole's Maurice is a fully fleshed-out thoroughly lived-in character. The spark he feels when he meets Jessie is clearly the most exciting thing that's happened to him in a long time and it's impossible not to sympathize with his newfound zest--even while raising an eyebrow at his pursuit. Newcomer Whittaker is also excellent adeptly shifting between Jessie's moments of brazen womanly confidence and naïve little-girl hurt and eagerness. Like its main character Venus isn't an easy movie to categorize. Just when it seems like a quiet dignified drama about one man's attempt to make peace with his own mortality the advent of Jessie turns it into one of filmdom's more unlikely May-December romances. And then there are the movie's comic moments (one of the best is when Maurice takes a pratfall while trying to spy on Jessie when she poses nude for an art class). Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill The Mother) takes all of these conflicting elements and weaves them into a compelling challenging whole. It's hard to say whether he would have succeeded without O'Toole--in another actor's hands Maurice could have been just another dirty old man and some scenes frankly require all of O'Toole's talent to overcome that obstacle. But with this star and this director Venus is artful.