I’m not a huge movie buff, but, faced with a long rail journey, I settled down to watch Brideshead Revisited on the tiny but effective screen of my iPod.
I won’t attempt to re-tell the story here, but just to say that I was interested in the strong religious thread running through the plot. The leading character, Charles Ryder, is presented as a level-headed, fair-minded atheist. He comes into contact with an aristocratic family with a strong Roman Catholic tradition. The head of this family, Lord Marchmain, has abandoned both his wife and his Catholicism and is living in Venice. The matriarch expresses her religious convictions by demanding that her daughters marry fellow-catholics and by insisting that it is pointless to pursue happiness in this life: “All that matters is the life to come”. She is supported in these rigid and joyless views by her elder son and by her younger daughter, both of whom are presented as very models of emotional and social repression. Her younger son, Sebastien, however, revolts against all of this by drifting into alcoholism, while her elder daughter, Julia, also exercises independence of spirit, only to find herself locked in loveless marriage to a cad who only pretended to belong to the Catholic faith for the convenience of the marriage.
The return to faith, in different ways, of Lord Marchman, of Julia, and even of Sebastien, seems arbitrary and contrived.
The movie seems calculated to show, then, how much good sense and freedom lies in a non-religious world-view, and how much stifling of the human spirit takes place when one adopts a religious (in this case, a Roman Catholic) stance. Yet another story-teller spinning an implausible yarn in order to rubbish religion.
How surprised I was, then, to learn that the aim of the original author (Evelyn Waugh) was precisely the opposite of the apparent aim of the film. He was himself a late convert to Catholicism, and his aim in the novel was to express and commend that faith through literary (rather than didactic) means. We are supposed to be attracted by the staunch faith of Lady Marcham, and by the various conversion that take place. But you’d never realise that from seeing the movie.
It’s not just the stories that count, then. It’s the way you tell ’em.