Friday, August 1, 2008

A slow march toward a final test

Consider the following: For most of your adult life you have rejected religion. You've worked hard to shed what you view as the stifling strictures of a church that seems to have been designed to drain life of its pleasures. But now, you've reached old age, and you're on your deathbed. Will your convictions hold? Will you remain faithful to your lack of faith or will you make a last-minute reach for salvation?

That question looms throughout "Brideshead Revisited," the latest adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel. In this much-abridged big-screen version, the characters can be divided into believers, non-believers and those who are uncertain. If this kind of rarefied subject matter -- very much alive to Waugh -- holds no interest for you, you may find yourself on the outside looking in as director Julian Jarrold's semi-successful movie unfolds.

Still, there's always decor: Replete with period trappings (the story unfolds in the years prior to World War I), "Brideshead" displays a doting fondness for days gone by, bathing itself in the customary aura of high culture. Jarrold has directed a work worthy of Merchant/Ivory, an assessment that can be taken as a compliment or a warning, depending on your tastes.

"Brideshead Revisited" became one of Waugh's best known novels, thanks mostly to the 11-part miniseries that played on PBS in the 1981, and which featured a stellar cast: Jeremy Irons, Claire Bloom, Anthony Andrews, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Working with a talented but less renowned group of actors, Jarrold whittles Waugh's story into a slightly irregular love triangle between Charles (Matthew Goode) and a brother and sister of the Flyte family (Ben Whishaw and Hayley Atwell).

In the early going, Charles -- a non-believer -- pops off to Oxford where he meets Whishaw's Sebastian, a gay sophisticate who draws Charles into his lively circle of friends.

Perhaps craving more intimacy, Sebastian invites Charles to visit his country estate, Brideshead Castle. There, Charles is smitten by Sebastian's sister, Julia (Atwell). Charles' attraction to Julia can't help but bruise Sebastian deeply. Thus begins the downward spiral of the brilliant young Sebastian, who slips ever deeper into alcoholism. Sebastian ultimately travels to Morocco where he lives in physical and moral squalor until he finds shelter in a monastery.

Both Sebastian and Julia are part of a family that has split. Presiding over the English half of the clan is the severely Catholic Lady Marchmain (a fine Emma Thompson). Having rejected what he regards as the stultifying Catholicism of Brideshead, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) has fled to Venice where he has taken up with another woman (Greta Scacchi) and become an advocate for sybaritic pleasures. The always remarkable Gambon presents Lord Marchmain as the very picture of easy-going indulgence.

Jarrold and writers Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies build the story around Charles, who aspires to be a painter. Charles' ambiguity becomes a source of both interest and frustration. What precisely attracts Charles to Sebastian? The young man's charm? His aristocratic wealth? The plush surroundings of a family that's significantly more established than Charles' own? Charles' father, a man who seems cheerfully oblivious to just about everything, hardly looks up from his work when his son leaves for Oxford.

The homosexual currents in Waugh's novel are more pronounced here than they were in the PBS series, but still appear as somewhat vague. However, the Flyte siblings -- each of whom alternately captures Charles' attention -- are well played: Whishaw makes a convincing transition from buoyancy to despair, and Atwell proves a suitably elusive object of desire.

Condensation -- as opposed to artistic ambiguity -- leads to some of the movie's problems, and the whole production never rises to the level of a classic.

The story ends with the outbreak of World War I and the apparent collapse of the Flyte way of life. Curious isn't it? The suffocating elitism of the upper classes, the upwardly mobile yearnings of those who crave privilege and the rigidity of believers who perch on barricades of religious certainty should have produced a work of urgency and passion instead of one that seems a little too covered by literary dust.


"Swing Vote," a new comedy starring Kevin Costner, tells the story of Bud Johnson, an alcoholic father who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. Turns out a voting-machine glitch has created a situation in which Bud's lone vote will decide a presidential election that quite improbably has ended in a dead heat.

Putting such an irresponsible character in the middle of a Capraesque comedy may seem like a bold move, but little about "Swing Vote" struck me as daring, particularly its refusal to adopt anything resembling a real position. Maybe that's because the movie can't make up its mind whether to criticize "dumb-ass" American voters or turn one of them into a hero. I guess it's no surprise that the movie ultimately argues that even a wastrel can take citizenship seriously. By the end, Bud has become a spokesman for ordinary folks everywhere.

Throughout the movie, Bud's goaded toward responsibility by his down-to-earth, 12 year-old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll). She basically has taken on the role of the adult in the family. Mom, we learn, has flown the coop. In a late picture scene, we learn why Molly lives with her father. Turns out Mom (Mare Winningham) is even worse.

Though its deployed in obvious ways, satire may be the movie's strong suit. "Swing Vote" has fun with the notion that candidates will do anything to win. Kelsey Grammer portrays the Republican president, and Dennis Hopper plays the Democratic challenger. Each candidate has an unscrupulous adviser: Stanley Tucci strategizes for the Republican; Nathan Lane handles dirty work for the Democrat.

In their efforts to appeal to Bud, the candidates visit the small New Mexican town where he lives, and, in the bargain, flip flop all over the place. Their changing positions result in one sharply funny pro-life campaign ad. But the movie does its own brand of shape-shifting, moving from intentionally dumb comedy to equal-opportunity satire to serious drama.

Oh well, Bud's slovenly look may have penetrated the movie's core: Like Bud, "Swing Vote" provides a few laughs, but overall, it's a pretty shabby effort.

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