We're glad we caught Brideshead Revisited, as it was fast disappearing only a few weeks after opening. Not sure why, as it delivers everything you could want from an epic English period piece -- star-crossed love, class conflict, 1930s period costumes, an eye-popping baroque stately manor house, and Emma Thompson. We hadn't read the Evelyn Waugh novel nor seen the much-acclaimed TV mini-series, so we had no prejudicial expectations going in. What we got was an engaging character-driven story unfolding an unconventional love triangle, complicated by both class and religious differences. The apex of the triangle, Charles Ryder (subtly played by Matthew Goode), is a commoner and an atheist, but becomes romantically entangled with both the son and daughter of the wealthy noble Flyte family. Charles was an enigmatic character, and it's hard to say, even at the end of his story, what he genuinely felt. One of our friends thought he was a total player (along the lines of Michael York in Something for Everyone), but I thought he was less guileful than just swept away by an overwhelming combination of influences -- true passion for Lady Julia Flyte and genuine affection for Lord Sebastian (who felt true passion for him), alloyed by his awestruck fascination with the noble family and their palacial estate. The character himself, looking back, says he doesn't know which of his feelings were truly his own. Matthew Goode did a convincing job conveying such a subtle proposition. Hayley Atwell plays Julia alternating mercurially between genuineness and aristocratic sarcasm, suiting the internal conflicts in her character. ("Do you always do that, say one thing and mean another?" asks Charles. "Yes..." she replies, "and no.") Ben Whishaw is charming as Sebastian, a young Oscar Wilde, passionate and fun-loving but ultimately sad and self-destructing as all gay characters of that era were required to be. And Emma Thompson is flawless as the formidable matriarch of the family, who could freeze water with a word. Also some great contributions in minor roles from Michael Gambon as the estranged Lord Marchmain and Patrick Malahide as the acerbicly funny father of Charles. Even though the story was related from a double flash-back, beginning at the end, it wasn't obvious at all how it would unfold, and the telling of it kept me engrossed in these intriguing characters.
A personal side note: the TV mini-series aired about the time I was a junior at Princeton, living in a ground floor suite with a beautiful leaded-glass bay window looking out on the quad (Princeton's stone dorms are arranged in quads and entryways patterned after Oxford). When my mother visited, she was much amused by that window, having recently seen Brideshead Revisited, and remarking how much it was like a room in the story. I'd always remembered her remark, and now 27 years later, I appreciate what she was talking about.