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.
Positioned as a memory play When Did You Last See Your Father? attempts to explore the lifelong relationship between a father dying of terminal cancer and his son told through flashbacks and present-day scenes. Arthur Morrison (Broadbent) and his wife Kim (Juliet Stevenson) are both doctors in a small town in England. They have two kids Gillian (Claire Skinner) and older brother Blake (Firth) who is now an author in his 40s with two kids of his own. The story revolves around how Blake tries to come to terms with his father’s mortality and freely travels in time opening with a sequence in which the 8-year-old Blake experiences an embarrassing car incident as his father drives the family to an event. As the film hops and skips through the family’s life--past and present--we see sad and happy moments focusing on Blake’s teen years and early career where dad always seems to upstage him to become the center of attention. Played out against the drama of Arthur’s imminent death Blake grows to accept it--and all that has come before. Although there is a fine supporting cast the film is what they call in the business a two-hander--a searing drama focusing on the relationship between father and son as played by two of Britain’s finest Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth. They are both superb and by the very nature of the film given great opportunity to show their acting chops. It is Broadbent’s film right from the beginning however as his Arthur spans 40 years while Firth’s role is shared by some other fine actors (Bradley Johnson Matthew Beard) playing younger versions of Blake. Broadbent gives one of those dominating over-the-top confounding portrayals of a proud man whose immense presence permeates every aspect of his son’s life. Against this kind of formidable competition Firth is wonderfully understated and particularly effective in the film’s final few scenes. Stevenson and Skinner along with Gina McKee as the grown Blake’s wife handle the less demanding female roles with skill and compassion. Director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) doesn’t try to overpower the simple and literate story with any tricks instead letting When Did You Last See Your Father? live and breathe on its own powered by exceptional performances and a first-rate screenplay by David Nichols. Although the film is based on the actual memoir by the real-life Blake Morrison the story itself is universal and earns its laughs--and particularly its tears--by telling universal truths all of us can identify with. Tucker proves himself to be a fine actor’s director especially with Broadbent whose blustery character could have sailed out of control. Instead we understand this man even if we don’t always like him and much of that is due to the nicely nuanced command Tucker has over the proceedings. A small intimate film with numerous flashbacks like this one is trickier than it looks but ultimately it touches the heart and proves a worthwhile journey perfectly timed for Father’s Day.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.