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.
Casino Royale starts at the beginning as James Bond (Craig) takes his first baby steps as a Double O agent. His first assignment is to track down a terrorist cell in Madagascar but he’s a bit of a loose cannon and things quickly go awry. Bond’s superior M (Judi Dench) is soon regretting giving the arrogant Bond the promotion. Nonetheless Agent 007 takes it upon himself to follow a lead to the Bahamas and discovers that all nefarious dealings point to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) a nasty fellow who has money ties to terrorist organizations. Le Chiffre is planning to raise money in a high-stakes poker game at the Le Casino Royale in Montenegro—and Bond gets in to beat him at his own game. Along with a hefty bankroll M also sends the beguiling accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to keep Bond in check. They are skeptical of each other at first but as the danger escalates it becomes apparent there is a growing attraction—and affection—between them. Natch. Can these two crazy kids make it work immersed in the cutthroat world of international intrigue? Well this is Bond after all—and we know how he ends up. Craig absolutely gets it. Whatever doubts people may have had when Craig was first announced as the new Bond are washed away in the first few minutes of the film. Sure if Casino Royale was anything like the last few Bond movies then maybe the understated Craig wouldn’t have fit in as well. But this is a different Bond. The British actor plays him not as the icon we’ve come to know but as a flawed man warts and all who flies by the seat of his pants isn’t necessarily refined and yes can even fall in love. Craig also raises the acting bar. His brief scenes with the impeccable Dench for example simmer and pop unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Bond film. Danish film star Mikkelsen (Pusher) is quite effective as the main baddie with a particularly gruesome physical malady while the always good Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) shows up as CIA Agent Felix Leiter. The one weak link unfortunately is Green (The Dreamers). She certainly looks the part of a “Bond girl ” but her Vesper is supposed to be whip-smart able to engage in witty banter with 007 and the French actress can’t quite pull it off. Craig needs more of a challenge. Too bad Judi Dench isn’t 30 years younger; she would have been perfect. Casino Royale the first book in the Ian Fleming series is basic Bond 101. Director Martin Campbell--who helmed Goldeneye Pierce Brosnan’s first and probably best foray into the franchise--strips it of all the far-fetched gadgets (save for a few new-fangled PDAs) and over-the-top action sequences leaving just good clean action devoid of any invisible cars armored Russian tanks and the such. Oh wait Bond does use a bulldozer at one point but that comes briefly in the middle of a rather extensive and hair-raising foot chase. It just proves action can be just as riveting without having to completely suspend your disbelief. Casino Royale is also rare in that it shows how Bond became THE James Bond the one we’ve seen in countless movies over the years in the stylish tuxes drinking the martinis driving the Aston-Martins and bedding all the beautiful women. Casino Royale breathes new life into the franchise and one can only hope they can keep up the good work without once again lapsing into the ridiculous.