THE producers of this film must have known from the start that they were asking for trouble. Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel is a high watermark in English literature and the faithful TV adaptation made by ITV in 1981 has iconic status. Why try to say something new about Waugh's story of a high-Catholic aristocratic family living in one of Britain's finest stately homes? Why try to improve on a TV series that has just been reissued in the latest technology and that is still hard to fault either in its fidelity to the novel or in its acting and production values? My guess is that those behind this new film version simply fancied the story of a middle-class artist who becomes intricately involved with the nobility and thought that they could add to its appeal with a new generation of actors and the visual impact of big screen cinematography. Judged on that basis the new Brideshead Revisited passes two hours pleasantly enough; think of the Merchant-Ivory films set in the English countryside and you will get the idea. But judged as an attempt to add a 21st century consciousness to a mid-20th century novel it gets nowwhere. Naturally its critics have had fun with this film: Brideshead...compressed, condensed, diluted, redecorated, regurgitated are just some of the mocking adjectives that have been applied to it. Compressed and condensed get near to the heart of the problem. Evelyn Waugh's novel had 350 pages; the TV version ran to eleven one-hour episodes, 659 minutes in total. The new version lasts but 133 minutes -- so what can you expect? On TV the central character, the artist Charles Ryder, was the narrator, carrying the story forward and adding his own detached observations of the dysfunctional family in whose bosom he found himself. The decision of the film's producers to dispense with this technique, except very briefly at the beginning and end, was a major mistake. The need to compress story lines, to eliminate minor characters and to hurry through scenes calling out for leisurely exposition could all have been compensated for by Ryder's narration, but instead one is left with a sense of incompleteness and of regret at the complete absence of Evelyn Waugh's biting social commentary. .
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