Brideshead Revisited
Produced by BBC Films and Ecosse Films
Directed by Julian Jarrold
Screenplay by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock from the Evelyn Waugh novel
Distributed by Miramax Films

The Dark Knight
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is not a novel for the faint of heart.  This sumptuously ornate invocation of an aristocratic world receding ineluctably into a fabled past gives many the shivers.  Some tingle with thwarted longing; others quake with class-conscious anger.  Neither response was what Waugh had sought.  When he wrote Brides­head in 1944, he was a captain in the British army and convinced that, however the war ended, the world in which he had grown up would be lost forever.  He wanted to recall what was best about this period without glossing over its deficiencies.  More than this, he wanted to reveal “the operation of Divine Grace on a group of closely connected characters.”  The splendors of the life he had known among aristocratic friends between the wars was to be a distant second to his theological theme, but he often allowed himself to be carried away with the heady, seductive charm of that world—its art and architecture, its fascinatingly eccentric characters.  It’s been known to drive staid young men into the streets in search of vested flannel suits and demure young women to their millenary for cloche hats, and those less fashion-conscious back to the barricades of an ever-resurgent class struggle.

The filmmakers responsible for the new adaptation of Brideshead must have understood Waugh’s intentions well enough, else they would not have been able to disregard them so decisively.  Director Julian Jarrold and his writers, Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, have simply ignored the novel’s Dantesque struggle to strike a moral balance between the claims of this and the next world.  In its place, they have manufactured a high-fashion soap opera tricked out with the patented clichés of romantic strife.  The press notes distributed at the screening I attended proudly assured us that

the filmmakers drew on the themes that they felt chimed for our age—particularly the search for individual fulfillment in a world where religious fundamentalism and loyalty to one’s tribe seem likely to prevent the possibilities of such happiness.

Fundamentalism, tribalism?  Are these people deaf to the cacophony shrieking about their ears in a world bereft of conviction and loyalty?  As for individual fulfillment, Waugh made his autobiographical narrator, Charles Ryder, an architectural painter just so he could have him say,

I have always loved building, holding it to be not only the highest achievement of man but one in which, at the moment of consummation, things were most clearly taken out of his hands and perfected, without his intention, by other means, and I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited, as mere lodgers . . . of small importance in the long, fruitful life of their homes.

For Charles, individuals find their fulfillment to the degree they serve the cultural tradition that shelters them.  On the dust jacket of the first edition (1944), Waugh explained that his novel is

an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world . . . The story will be uncongenial alike to those who look back on that pagan world with unalloyed affection and to those who see it as transitory, insignificant and, already, hopefully passed.  Whom then can I hope to please?  Perhaps . . . those who look to the future with black forebodings and need more solid comfort than rosy memories.  To [them] I have given . . . a hope, not, indeed, that anything but disaster lies ahead, but that the human spirit, redeemed, can survive all disasters.

Like Waugh, Charles is a memorialist of a dying tradition.  He makes his living by painting aristocratic homes, usually on the eve of their demolition.  It seems all of England’s finest architecture is being razed to make room for efficient, modern housing and streamlined flats.  Charles takes his specialty all the more seriously because he’s in love with one of the families of this passing age, the Flytes, whose roots are deeper than most other members of their aristocratic class.  On their mother’s side, the Flytes are recusants, Roman Catholics who refused to surrender to Henry VIII when he established the English Catholic Church in 1534.

Charles finds himself beguiled by the charming Flyte children, first Sebastian, whom he meets at Oxford, and then Sebastian’s sister Julia at the family estate, Brideshead Castle.  He comes to think of the feckless, self-destructive Sebastian as a forerunner, his boyish attraction to him a phase leading to his mature passion for Julia.  Brideshead itself inspires longing.  This would make Charles a parvenu except that his devotion to the Flytes and their estate stems from his aesthetic sensibility more than his economic acquisitiveness.  The Flytes have bewitched the agnostic Charles from his respectable middle-class life into what for him is a perilously exotic ethos.  He doesn’t realize until much later that the Flyte allure rests on a foundation inestimably deeper and darker than their charm.  Their faith, even when it wavers, informs their being for better and, by the measure of this life, sometimes for worse.

If this novel were only a bittersweet tribute to a passing aristocratic culture, it would be little more than wistfully nostalgic.  But Waugh puts paid to this notion with his character Anthony Blanche, the homosexual aesthete, based on his friend Harold Acton.  Blanche contemptuously describes Charles’ paintings as charming, one of the novel’s key words.  He judges his work skillful, pretty, and pointless.  And Charles more than half agrees.  Waugh was paralleling Charles’ architectural paintings with his own earlier novels.  He had come to think of them as well made but lightweight, their easy snobbery especially a flaw.

Waugh had always recognized that his fondness for the aristocracy and their world was a shallow obsession.  This is why aristocrats are so roundly mocked in his pages.  And yet his awareness of the foibles, vanity, and iniquity of this class was always qualified.  He continued to believe there was a genuine cultural benefit in having an aristocracy.  There would always be some sort of ruling class, he reasoned, and whatever its sins, Europe’s had underwritten some of the world’s greatest art and architecture.  At the same time, he also understood that artistic achievement doesn’t require an hereditary noble class living luxuriously at the expense of the lower orders.  Most important, in light of his adopted faith (Waugh converted to Rome in 1930), he became convinced that, as magnificent as European civilization was, it was not an end in itself.  This ultimately guides Charles’ judgment after he loses Julia (and, with her, the Brideshead estate he so clearly covets) to her theological scruples.  Their affair had been adulterous, and civil divorce was not an option for Catholics.

It is Sebastian’s older brother, the comically orthodox Bridey, who enables Charles to make peace with his fate, and he does so on aesthetic grounds.  “You take art as a means not as an end,” Bridey remarks.  “That is strict theology, but it’s unusual to find an agnostic believing it.”  Charles doesn’t know how to respond to this observation from a man he considers to be a madly religious prig.  Until this moment, he had thought Bridey’s ideas were utterly without merit, but now he finds himself reconsidering.  The full point of Bridey’s comment comes triumphantly home at the end of the novel.  What Bridey meant was this: Looked at theologically, art, however culturally important, can never be regarded as self-sufficient.  By the time Waugh was writing Brideshead, he had adopted Bridey’s unfashionable position.  Ideally, art is a means through which we may come to apprehend a higher reality.  The larger culture that nurtures art must be understood to play the same intermediary role.  Bridey puts his finger precisely on what’s central to European Christian culture.  The things of this world, natural or manmade, are merely signs pointing to the next.  To put it another way, Waugh was profoundly convinced that the material world is sacramental, through and through.

Charles discovers that the real purpose of the Brideshead estate is not as a home for the Flyte family nor for Julia and himself nor for any one group of individuals of whatever class.  It serves as a sign to different people in different ages.  In the novel’s closing pages, it is 1942, and the army has requisitioned Brideshead.  The estate now shelters lower- and middle-class English soldiers.  These men may not appreciate the history and culture behind Brideshead; they may discard their cigarettes and half-eaten sandwiches in its fountain; but they attend Mass at the estate’s chapel.  Standing inside this chapel, Charles says “a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words.”  He then reflects on the lamp that announces the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the altar’s tabernacle:

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs . . . that . . . burns again for other soldiers, far from home.  

Charles goes on to tell us that his second-in-command finds him “looking unusually cheerful.”  By the standards of this world, Ryder has lost everything: his wife and children to divorce, and Julia and Brideshead to the intransigent principles of Julia’s faith.  But he’s been more than recompensed spiritually.  He’s found his genuine self by entering the Church.

In Jarrold’s film, there are no references to Charles’ architectural painting nor any sign he’s become a Catholic.  In the last scene, he’s in the chapel alone.  There’s no indication the other soldiers ever seek spiritual refuge at its altar.  Charles looks utterly inconsolable.  It’s just boo-hoo all over the place.  The end.

The unworldly Bridey, who barely registers in the film, provides the basis for an infinitely more sensational closing to Waugh’s meditations.  By helping Charles recognize the sacramental nature of the material world, Bridey equips him to understand the corollary of the forerunner.  Ryder had suggested to Julia that Sebastian might be understood as a forerunner leading him to her.  Julia takes this a crucial step farther.  “Perhaps,” she replies, “I am only a forerunner too.”  Addressing the reader, Charles reflects that 

perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols. . . . [P]erhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.

This is the theological conceit Dante Aligheri elaborated in The Divine Comedy, in which he imagined himself attracted to the beautiful Beatrice only to discover that her seductiveness is the beginning of his awakening to beauty in the world and in other human beings.  This finally leads him to contemplate the source of all beauty in God.  This is what Bridey meant by saying that art is a means, not an end.  True art leads us on until we arrive at our home.

You will search in vain in Jarrold’s film for any sign of such beauty.  I recommend reading the novel, if you haven’t already, and watching its 1981 Granada Television serial dramatization adapted by John Mortimer who, despite having scant sympathy for Waugh’s faith, admired his artistry and brought it to the screen with honorable fidelity.  Even at 13 hours, this production is more spirited and entertaining than Jarrold’s wholly uninspired précis.

The Dark Knight is another revisiting.  As he did in Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan has returned to Bob Kane’s 1939 comic-book conception derived from radio’s popular heroes The Shadow and The Green Hornet.  These were wealthy men who took upon themselves the right to step outside the law in order to protect innocent citizens from criminals.  Nolan wants to remind us that Batman (Christian Bale) dangerously appeals to the vigilante in us all.

Several times during the film, Batman’s nemesis, The Joker (Heath Ledger), taunts his would-be victims.  “Why so serious?” he drawls like a whiny, menacing Peter Lorre.  One might ask the same of Nolan.  Despite its comic-book origins, the film is a virtual black hole of anger and despair, relieved now and again by flashes of illusory hope.  Even the Bat Signal has turned ominous.  It once blazed its winged icon upon the night sky calling for Batman’s help.  Now it’s a ragged smudge on the evening’s morbid shroud.  And when the adventure ends, the forces of good are literally running from the folks they have been risking their lives to defend.  Holy Ingratitude, what’s going on here?

A possible answer finally shows up in the film’s last half-hour.  Using his vast computer, Bruce Wayne has transformed all the cell phones of Gotham City’s unsuspecting citizenry into sonar surveillance devices, beaming back to his corporate headquarters everything they see and hear.  His CEO, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), is appalled.  Having equipped Batman with a Batmobile capable of vaporizing armored tanks and a flying extraction gizmo that whisks ne’er-do-wells out of their high-rise redoubts, he finally draws the line.  “Spying on 30 million people is not part of my job description,” he heatedly informs his boss.  This remark answers The Joker’s question.  Nolan’s film is an oblique parody of America’s grim misadventures in the Middle East and the domestic abuses they have instigated.  This explains why The Joker’s principal mode of attack is bombing with the help of unwitting suicides.  It explains why Commissioner Gordon allows Batman to put The Joker through an “extraordinary rendition” in order to get him to reveal where he is keeping hostages.  It explains why Gotham’s skullduggery is being financed by a Chinese businessman based in Hong Kong.  It all fits like a lock you wish hadn’t been opened.

So Wayne, adopting la-di-da disguise as Gotham’s wealthiest playboy, is George Bush; Batman, his unleashed Dick Cheney.  This makes The Joker the mad, implacable . . . well, not Al Qaeda exactly.  He’s rather a preternatural creature of chaos summoned into being by a hopelessly vicious world.  He’s also the bitter harvest Batman has reaped by his extralegal methods.  Madness begets madness.

When Wayne confides to Alfred (Michael Caine), his trusted retainer, that he may stop his Batman exploits, the paternal butler counsels otherwise.  “Endure, Master Wayne. . . . They’ll hate you for it.  But that’s the point of Batman; he can be the outcast.  He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.”

The right choice?  We are left to wonder.  As Batman, Wayne has inaugurated a return to vigilantism.  The more he battens on the ordinary villains represented here by a multiculturalist’s nightmare of ethnic gangs, the more violent things become.  When we first see Batman in action, he is fighting on two fronts.  There are the criminals on one side and his vigilante imitators on the other, with no solution in sight.

Dabbling in nihilism, Nolan has risked squeezing the antic joy out of his superhero extravaganza.  That he hasn’t is a testament to some awfully fast pacing, cleverly audacious special effects, and an exceptional cast.  Bale looks altogether too obsessed to make an attractive hero, but he holds your attention absolutely. Ledger’s Joker is an eerily sinuous, sinister terrorist committed to exploding any notion of order that may foolishly linger in the minds of respectable citizens.  He smiles his fatal work to see, knowing that it’s not the murders he commits that are so important as his ability to stomp out morality itself.

Now a word from Batman’s true audience: my 19-year-old Liam.  “The film’s about hope, Dad, not anger.  In the dark, a single match is brilliant.  Batman’s that match.  He sacrifices himself.  He becomes an outcast in order to sustain people’s faith in the good despite the shadow of evil.”  Well said and amen.