Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Diana Quick, Charles Keating, Jeremy Irons
(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)
“Julia” signifies a shift in focus for Brideshead Revisited, equal parts palate cleanser and the seeds of a reboot. Less than ten minutes into episode, Charles intones, “It is time to speak of Julia” in a way that makes it clear that Brideshead has to change course. The first scene, which precedes that one by a few minutes, is so different in setting alone that it is shocking. Someone addresses Charles in French. We go upstairs to his flat and he finds Rex there, just the two of them, without a Marchmain in sight. The place has changed, the focus has changed, the color changes to sepia for a long stretch, we’re halfway through the serial, and I’m not sure how much more we could have taken of Sebastian’s unrepentant alcoholism and Lady Marchmain’s tongue-lashings anyway. Time for a slightly different focus.
For five episodes, Julia, who takes a minute to show up in the proceedings but whose name is on the episode, has been little more than a callow post-teenager, needlessly defiant or cynical. The Flyte children are pretty neatly comparable across ages; Bridey and Cordelia, the eldest and youngest, are religious and obedient, where Sebastian and Julia are mostly apathetic about their Catholicism except when it’s brought on them like a hammer. For Julia, that hammer hardly comes down; given how many parties she goes to, it’s not unbelievable to think that she might be Sebastian’s rough equivalent in wildness; Charles recounts how she was considered just to be a touch less dignified and comported than her peers. One way or another, she must be more controlled than he is. No one accuses her of dipsomania, at any rate, although her mother drops “irreverent” and “indecent” within about six seconds after Julia has agreed to marry Rex.
Rex has also been on the periphery for the run of the show so far. In his first appearance, he seems to be a Canadian rube with bigger britches than he ought to have; later on, he manages to extricate Charles, Boy Mulcaster, and Sebastian especially from the sticky drunk driving situation. (If there’s a corpus out there that tracks the phrase “unused to wine,” my guess is that 85% of it is made up of people saying that in “The Bleak Light of Day.”) Keating, whose dearth of a pretty English accent is really conspicuous when he’s surrounded constantly by people like Irons or Claire Bloom or Anthony Andrews, is mostly ignorant. Within his sphere of cronyism and politics he is a rising star, but he will almost certainly embarrass you at a dinner party by doing something uncouth which seemed perfectly innocuous to him. His confessions introduce us to the episode. It’s an interesting pair, for certain. While one of them has been very much on the outside looking in of the plot, and the other has been right at the rapidly cooling center, both of them are outsiders in Brideshead. It is fitting that the two of them, without the money or titles or prestige that the Flytes can indulge in, have to talk about what’s been going on to let us, the other outsiders, in on the secrets.
“Julia” is sharply funny. Most of the time the humor in this series came from Sebastian’s childish pratfalls and pranks, Boy Mulcaster’s relentless inability to grasp a situation, or, best of all, Anthony Blanche’s perfect quips. Without any of them, “Julia” is a fish out of water vessel for Rex, the poor man who is in way over his head. In the beginning of the episode, Rex accuses Charles of harboring Sebastian, who’s stolen some of Rex’s gambling winnings and run off rather than take a treatment in Zurich. Charles’ tone is frosty when he tells Rex that he doesn’t have anything to do with that family anymore; Rex responds, a little wryly, that he thinks he’s about to find himself doing a great deal with that family. It’s back and forth that requires a great deal of chemistry between the actors, and the scene where Charles gets Rex to pay for a fancy dinner that just absolutely mystifies Rex is a classic. Charles, as everyone else is, condescends to Rex. Rex, who could avoid a great deal of condescension if he wasn’t such a moron, can’t help but walk into it. Take this little series of gems:
Charles: Well, it doesn’t matter what people call, as long as they don’t call you ‘pigeon pie’ and eat you up.
Charles: It’s a saying.
Rex: Oh. [stares at plate of food] Now, I like a bit of onion with my caviar. Chap who knew said it brought out the flavor.
Charles: …try it without, first.
Here’s another screamer, from when Rex is trying to get a priest to bring him up to speed on Catholicism so he can marry Julia:
Father Mowbray: Well, would you say Our Lord had more than one nature?
Rex: Just as many as you say, Father.
Father Mowbray: Let’s try another question.
This particular scene ends with Rex’s almost profound statement about “sort of raining spiritually,” a statement which I like to think would have made Thomas Aquinas combust with pique. We find out that Cordelia has been feeding Rex some truly excellent lies about Catholicism; my personal favorite is the one about sleeping with your feet pointing east so you can walk to Heaven in the night if you die in your sleep. When combined, Father Mowbray’s instruction and Cordelia’s gaslighting have so addled Rex’s brain that he goes on about “sacred monkeys and plenary indulgences.”
Rex’s buffoonery is mixed with a marvelous cunning. He is older than Julia, and even if he doesn’t understand some of the niceties of the English nobility, he understands much better how to dominate another person. He makes himself “indispensable” to Julia, never making a hasty move which would make him appear indecent or predatory. At the same time, he continues to fool around with Brenda Champion, a woman he’s been seeing for a while. He uses her as leverage to get Julia to marry him, and equally as important, to sleep with him. For some hours Julia thinks that she is manipulating him; it could not be clearer that Rex has her in the palm of his hand.
In the long run, this is the last episode that gives us many of the characters we’ve come to appreciate. Rex is a key character for the last time, and this episode is the first that makes Julia particularly important rather than scenery. Bridey and Cordelia will be back, but this is the last hurrah for Lady Marchmain. Rex tells Charles at the beginning of the episode that the doctors think she has two years left, tops; Rex doubts she even has that much time. Sebastian, whose absence is painfully conspicuous this episode, has only a few minutes of screen time left in the series. In the interim, Charles is almost entirely off-screen. No episode in the series is quite like this one; the characters are different, the humor more aggressive, and an eye significantly more on social mores. Sebastian and Charles were always, even in their saddest moments, very much fixated on the now, with an eye on the future only to wonder at what enjoyment they would take next. In “Julia,” for the first time, the whole concern about the future is the concern of total disaster.