Brideshead Revisited S1E11, “Brideshead Revisited”

Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Laurence Olivier, Diana Quick

(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)

Daniel Day-Lewis is, by virtually any standard short of the box office, the greatest film actor we’ve ever had. Nine times out of ten I think so. And then, that one time out of ten, I think about how moved I was, despite myself, the first time I saw “Brideshead Revisited.” Brideshead Revisited the novel is intelligent, if weirdly conservative, and witty, and thoughtful. It’s one of my favorite books, one of the finest English novels of the past one hundred years. But it has this strange – not merely bad, but strange – episode in which Lord Marchmain comes back to England on the eve of World War II, fades, and dies. Meanwhile, Charles becomes riled up about ensuring that the ailing old man, who basically renounced his faith for decades, does not receive the last rites. He does, though, and the scene is so moving that it in fact converts everyone in the room. This ending is replicated in the finale of Brideshead Revisited, and it dominates most of the ninety minutes given to wrapping up the story. It’s somehow even worse in practice (both in the novel and in the miniseries) than in summary. Olivier doesn’t save it, but he is so good that for a few minutes I thought the mindless conflict between Charles and everyone else (Charles contra mundum, to adapt a phrase we heard so long ago) was worth it.

He begins the episode in full-on grandfather mode, somewhere between whimsical and serious. He makes two separate comments about Charles being an artist, both of which might have been a little pointed had he made them in “Home and Abroad.” Yet here they seem familiar and a little teasing in the way that older people, looking for familiarity among drastic change, have with their words. The second time he does it he suggests that Charles paint the enormous bed (“the Queen’s Bed”) that he’s going to use during his planned convalescence at Brideshead. “You can call it The Deathbed,” he says. Charles has been sort of tolerating this conversation, but the slight and indulgent smile he’s been wearing is wiped off his face. Alex still has a wicked streak. Little things, such as fey insistence on a giant bed in a hitherto unused room or changing his mind about taking a drive. He also makes his intention clear to leave Brideshead to Julia and Charles rather than his eldest son, essentially because he disapproves of Bridey’s dull, bourgeois wife; indeed, he even makes a will to that extent after Bridey drops the parish priest, Father Mackay, on him rather suddenly one morning.

Yet for all of these scenes, there seem to be just as many where he is prone, lying on his back, white as his sheets and pale as the ghost he’s about to become, mustache blending into his skin. The venom of this last episode takes a path from gland to fang, all of it having to do with Catholicism, and transmitted from the lively Lord Marchmain to the comatose one. These are bridged by one pensive scene; John Irving wrote in A Prayer for Owen Meany that old folks remember their own childhoods better than more recent years, and in a lingering, long monologue, Lord Marchmain remembers the positively agrarian past, “the days of growth and building.” Meanwhile, the camera creates a small circle, looking at Cordelia, Cara, Charles, and Julia, each posed like figures in a Renaissance painting. It’s a beautiful scene, more elegiac than any other scene in Brideshead Revisited. (Knowing what we know about Sebastian, many of those scenes seem rather more morose than poetic.)

Somehow, after what seems an interminable number of arguments that we probably wouldn’t have had in a regular hourlong episode, Olivier makes it work. (There’s a short scene I never remember until I see it in which Charles comes in gloating to Julia after her breakfast; her father has chased the “witch doctor” away, he’s going to strike his blow against this superstition. Julia cannot fathom why it is that Charles should care so much if he thinks it’s so unimportant, a line which has the unfortunate effect of raising the same questions within the viewer. Why Charles cares is never given much weight, unless we are to buy into the explanation that he covets the house so much that he loses his previously pristine self-control in every scene. Similarly, an argument about why the priest is there if he’s not strictly necessary for salvation ends with the Catholics saying, Well, it’s good to have the priest there anyway. It’s the sort of trite answer one often gets from people whose love of tradition has eroded their good sense. Even Julia rebuts Char”les by saying that Catholicism is nearly 2,000 years old, as if its age – and comparative youth next to “murder” or “rape” or “prejudice” – were some indicator of validity.) Finally dying, finally losing control of his body, Alex takes the last rites from Father Mackay. But before he dies, he slowly manages to make the sign of the Cross upon himself. Every ounce of Olivier’s famed body control is brought to bear as he barely manages to put index finger to thumb. He pauses for a few seconds, leaving a fist on his breastbone, but then brings his hand back up to his right shoulder and then drags it slowly to his left. Words don’t do it justice, which is one of the marks of great acting. It must be seen to be appreciated fully; simply put, it’s phenomenal.

His death creates an effect not unlike a wrecking ball. Julia and Charles have a scene together which sweeps their relationship into the bin; they cannot go on living in adultery with each other, even if that living has been their happiest, now that they’ve seen such a sign from God. The scene is fine. It has to happen, and does, and the worst one can say about it is that it rubs away our last impressions of Olivier’s performance of a deathbed conversion in favor of reading them as Alex’s genuine deathbed confession.

It’s the last fifteen minutes or so of the serial which get me. We return to our original setting – Brideshead, during World War II, where Charles is an officer recently arrived at the house. I confess that the first time I watched this miniseries I had forgotten all about this older Charles; his presence at Brideshead again, as it were, is recollected with a shocking cut of boots moving heavily on the muddy ground. If I’d forgotten about Old Charles, then his Colonel Blimp of a commanding officer was just pure amnesia. He asks, strangely, the most poignant question of the episode: “Anyone happen to know this area?” Charles, who knows this house and its grounds better than he knows his own mind, stays silent. I used to think that he was purposefully concealing his knowledge, perhaps to spite his commander or because he didn’t want to think about Brideshead. Now I read his face as one too shocked to make an assent. Any teacher knows that a student cannot answer a question while s/he’s dreaming.

We’ve seen the house in disarray before; Rex about turned it into a casino for a while. But nothing compares to the debris and junk just stacked everywhere in the house now. All of it certainly serves a function for the war effort, or at least it ought to. It also serves to liquidate the grandeur of the manor, and there may not be a moment in the serial where I identify with Charles – Charles “modern art is rubbish,” “I came back to fight against labor during the General Strike,” “I’ve spent my entire adult life hanging onto the coattails of a decaying aristocratic family” Ryder – than this. From his expression, we can see that he is all at sea, lost in recollections and sadness. And why not? Where Julia bore her soul to him over her guilt, there are now men playing soccer. Where he and Sebastian tasted wines until their taste buds and brains were besotted, there are crates. Brideshead is, after eleven episodes and more than a decade of time in their world, so much more than what Mr. Samgrass called “quite my favorite house in England.” It has had life imprinted upon it, and death as well. The house is where he fell in love with Sebastian and was forced to give up Julia. It is the place where Charles pushed Sebastian’s wheelchair recklessly, where Sebastian’s mother and father died, where Bridey was affable and a little vacant and where Cordelia was engaging and spry. And now it is meant to be brigade headquarters. In a miniseries that ultimately ends in an episode where its characters are forced to confront what “sacred” means, we viewers have to conclude that the house is as holy as anything else we’ve seen. All of us know on some level that the places we return to are hallowed and powerful to us, and yet we do not like to reckon with that fact until it’s too late to comprehend it fully. Robert Frost famously wrote that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” We would much rather accept the straightforward element of that second line than grapple with the greater meaning it holds, a fact proved for the umpteenth time by Charles’ expression.

His final stop in the house – after the inevitable, warming visit to Nanny Hawkins – is the chapel, where he genuflects and kneels; he considers how the use that the “builders” of the house envisioned could not possibly match what has happened to it in the mid-’40s. After all this, the “fierce little tragedy” he played a starring role in, his outlook is surprisingly warm, as warm and individual as the “little red flame” hanging in the chapel. What is happening here, he thinks, is not “the last word” or even “apt.” Something else will follow, perhaps foreign to the “builders and tragedians” but no less valuable for it; having seen that there is a light that never goes out (sorry), he takes comfort from it. So might we all.


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