Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick, Phoebe Nicholls
(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)
It takes the greater part of the first episode, all of the second, and all but the last thirty seconds of the third to build us up to a state of great joy in Charles and Sebastian’s friendship and then tear it all down. Granted, there are interludes where Charles’ father makes fun of everyone else in sight, and there’s that melancholy moment on a rainy beach in Italy, and Sebastian does almost go to jail for a very long time. It is not until episodes four and five, with the traps sprung and the viewer walking unthinkingly in their direction, that the series strikes. It’s a masterpiece in buildup followed by a masterpiece in demolition largely because of the measured pace of both.
In the first thirty minutes of “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” that cycle is condensed considerably, and what we lose in the slow burn of the first half of the miniseries is replaced with a powerful physical focus: the fountain in front of Brideshead, found at the beginning of the episode in a sunny afternoon, and then again ten minutes later in a clear night, and then again one last time as nighttime creeps closer to a.m.We’ve been seeing it since our first encounter with the house, but never has it taken on so clear a role in the story. It’s Charles, at the third go-round, who makes the connection. It’s almost like a play, he says, a comedy where people find themselves returning to this fountain for no clear reason. (A brief look at the blogger behind the curtain, although if you’re reading this you’ve probably already made the connection. Julia, frustrated by Charles’ insistence on turning their lives into some satirical performance, stops playing the mental game that Charles insists on. “Why must you see everything secondhand?” she asks. Why, indeed.)
Perhaps he’s been inspired by Julia’s long breakdown at the fountain in the second trip outside; tearfully, she reckons with “living in sin” with Charles, noting the repetitive nature of the term, and even connects it to the death of her mother. In this episode, it’s far too late for anything new to happen; characters can only make adjustments, such as Bridey’s impending marriage, Charles’ and Julia’s impending divorces, and Cordelia’s return to Brideshead. Even Sebastian, living again in North Africa after a couple years in Europe, has his own fountain in a monastery where he flits between holiness and depravity. And to think that an episode full to the brim with regrets and insults, misery and soul-searching, is brought on by reports of Bridey’s upcoming marriage to a widow, one Beryl Muspratt. He met her through her late husband, Admiral Muspratt, who, like Bridey, is an avid matchbox collector. He says the word “comely” with a straight face, for heaven’s sake, and he still sends his sister into a tailspin just a minute later with a scathing criticism of her “menage” with Charles and Rex.
“The Twitch Upon the Thread” catches us up with Bridey and Cordelia, who have been absent for some time, as well as Sebastian, though we do not see his face. So too does it put us in contact with nearly everyone else with a name who’s appeared in the program. John Gielgud only has about half a minute in this episode, but he’s still unfairly funny. Charles tells his father that he is going to get divorced and then remarry as soon as the divorce comes through. What a stupid idea, the elder Ryder says. You’re just getting unmarried – why on earth would you be in such a rush to do that again? Boy Mulcaster is the same as ever, too. He chastises his brother-in-law over a billiards table for mistreating his sister, Celia (and Boy, for the first time in his life, maybe, has a fair point); almost the next words out of his mouth are grudging, smirking praise for Charles’ affair with Julia. You’ve always had a way of picking attractive women, he tells Charles. And Rex is back again, if only for a few moments, and even though it seems that his presence has more to do with anchoring the episode in a period of time. Charles’ voiceover notes that Rex, so intent on getting the British government into war with Germany, is much too distracted to properly divorce himself from Julia. The episode ends by noting the one major player who didn’t make a brief appearance in the past hour but who will dominate, in sickness and in death, the next hour: Lord Marchmain, who intends to return to his ancestral home.
Interestingly, although we have a much better idea of every living Flyte by the time this episode concludes, Charles himself remains something of a mystery. He has always had the habit of listening silently to other people while they’re talking, rarely interrupting or even commenting on what they’ve said. His voiceovers are also fairly lean here, giving us no real clues other than the fact that he always thinks about Sebastian even after the events of “The Unseen Hook,” which I think we could have guessed at without his help. He criticizes Julia’s Catholic upbringing with his distaste for religion, although he’s done that before as well and never been anything worse than dismissive. Any narrator is a prism for the reader or viewer, and Charles has long been a personal favorite. It’s interesting that in this episode Charles rarely bends the story in his direction, only once or twice is his really critical self. The vast majority of what happens is placed more or less raw and unaltered in front of us.
This is quite possibly the best episode of the serial, approached only by “The Bleak Light of Day” and “The Unseen Hook,” I think, for overall quality in technique, dialogue, and performance. The way this episode is shot is in many ways very different from other episodes. We receive more aerial views of Brideshead, and the slow tracking shots that we’d seen before (in “Julia,” for example) are replicated here. Conversations and situations are replaced with long monologues. Julia’s self-described “hysteria” takes place almost entirely on a single bench, with her face no more than a foot away from Charles’ breast at any time. Cordelia’s report on Sebastian is a cross-country hike through leaves and branches and mud on a day that feels gray and cold through the screen. Julia’s is moving, if a little obscured by the crying; Cordelia’s, which is delivered in monotone, like Bresson got a hold of Phoebe Nicholls before the shoot, is even more heartbreaking. Cordelia saw Sebastian just the month before, when he was reportedly on the verge of death. She helped nurse him back to some small health; alcohol’s grip is as strong as it has ever been, although now it is fighting with the religion which, as Julia showed us earlier, is devilishly difficult to shake.
The best character work in Brideshead Revisited has always, in some way, returned to the Catholicism which Lady Marchmain believed in firmly, which Bridey and Cordelia swallowed without much fuss, and which as adults Sebastian and Julia are discovering they had swallowed even if, as young people, they pretended not to. The next episode, which only could be more Catholic if the pope had made a cameo, loses the scent of its characters in so doing; this one, which recognizes the genuine phenomenon that religious teaching in childhood has on adult conscience, keeps its people in its crosshairs. Charles tries to convince Julia that the guilt she’s feeling is purely psychological, easily explained away by modern medical science. It’s “bosh,” he says, but she disagrees. Sebastian’s response to Charles saying so many years ago, as Charles recalls in the moment, was quite similar. The fountain stands in for this circular, recurrent theme in Brideshead Revisited that has been brought out so unsparingly in “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” but seeing Charles in the room he’d painted so many years ago, with Julia, talking about Sebastian – the fountain only seems like a good physical symbol because it would have been impossible to put Charybdis on the grounds.