Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Olivier
(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)
There’s no doubt that of the eleven Brideshead episodes, this is the worst one with a bullet, and yet without it the first half of the miniseries would collapse. Over the course of this episode, Sebastian’s family and their accoutrements, especially their Catholicism, come into shape. In “Et in Arcadia Ego,” Sebastian crossed himself before stepping into a pew in the chapel attached to the house. Charles did the same, a little maladroitly. It’s good manners, Charles says. “You don’t have to on my account,” Sebastian replies, a little more haughtily than he needs to say it. “Home and Abroad” makes it abundantly clear on whose accounts Charles will have to pretend for.
Early on in the episode, Sebastian and Charles have the run of Brideshead to themselves, gyreing and gimbling in the wabe to the hearts’ content. They play croquet, drink wine, and push Sebastian’s wheelchair down a hill. (Charles, summoned to Brideshead because of Sebastian’s broken toe, has rather more fun with this last than Sebastian does.) They lay out nude on the roof of the house, tanning themselves – until Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls) pops up. (They cover up; she genuinely doesn’t seem to care about any potential awkwardness.) Cordelia, like eldest brother Bridey (Simon Jones), is a devout Catholic. While she has more questions about her religion than Bridey does – she can’t imagine it matters to the Blessed Virgin what side of the bed her shoes go under, for instance – she still glories in the thought of “six black Cordelias” in Africa. She pouts when it seems that the chapel might be shuttered. Sebastian and Julia are not like their siblings; religion matters significantly less to them on a practical basis. Sebastian’s first reaction to a closed chapel is that it would make going to church in inclement weather much more bothersome; there’s no sign that Julia takes her faith any more seriously than Sebastian, either. What clearly remains for Sebastian (and what will be very clear for Julia later in the series) is the sense of guilt that feeling sinful causes, and the helplessness both of them feel when confronted with their problems.
The other side of the family, the side that lives in Venice, doesn’t care about sin in the slightest. Lord Marchmain (Olivier) lives with his mistress, Cara (Stephane Audran) and neither one of them says a word. Charles, who is as apt to display his provincial background with Lord Marchmain as he is to display his spendthrift ways around his own father, can’t help but be a little titillated by the fact of a mistress you live with in Venice while you’re still married to a woman in England. Alex is friendly enough, suggesting drinks before dinner and informing Charles on the number of painters named Bellini (three!), but he is far away from Sebastian and further still from Charles. He is not warm. His posture is perpetually crunched together, something like a seated fetal position. He leaves Charles to Cara, which is fair enough, given that his son is not in Venice every day, but in practice it leaves Charles to a series of conversations in which Cara expresses her theories on Anglo-Germanic “romantic friendships” among young men, which are really just practice for when the young men grow older. Cara takes a few viewings to appreciate, I think; on first hearing, she sounds conspiratorial and curious, but she comes to represent a sly sort of wisdom, able to bridge Charles’ politeness and Alex’s aloofness in a way that pleases both men. It is she who tells Charles that Sebastian is in a state of prolonged adolescence, and she is the first one to note that Sebastian might have a drinking problem; in fact, Charles will essentially translate Cara’s thought process regarding the difference between the way he drinks and the way Sebastian drinks. Like Lord Marchmain, Cara will be absent from the miniseries for some time, and with her goes some of the most levelheaded thought of any character in Brideshead.
Perhaps the reason this episode has never held my interest is because we are a bit too secondhand here, a little too wrapped up in how Catholic someone like Bridey is or in the troubles with Venetian plumbing. It’s not long before the Idylls of Chucky and Sea-bass are interrupted by Sebastian’s family and their perpetually intrusive friendliness; they may bring out the worst in Sebastian, but they do the same to Charles. In a discussion about God early in the episode, Sebastian floats the ingenious epigram, “O God, make me good, but not yet.” Charles is hostile to the idea of God generally. You can’t possibly believe it, he says. Sebastian is reticent about answering the question. At dinner with Bridey and Cordelia, Sebastian outs Charles as an atheist. “An agnostic,” Charles says, a little resignedly, to Bridey. Bridey is pleasantly surprised, curious about how agnosticism works; like alcohol, it’s something other people try which Bridey’s not really interested in tasting himself. As in the novel, Charles is unnecessarily – and I would argue uncharacteristically – fierce about his lack of faith. Irons, perhaps as unconvinced by that ferocity as his viewers are, never does manage to strike the right tone. It’s a hard line to act well. Charles is motivated to stay out of conflict far more often than not, even shrugging it off when it comes his way; only about his “agnosticism” does he seek battle, and it is only a matter of importance to him when he wants to fight about it; unlike Bridey or Cordelia, who seem genuinely interested in weaving their faith into their actions, Charles does not weave anything much into his day-drinking or his time with Sebastian. Brideshead Revisited is a Catholic novel and a sympathetically Catholic miniseries; Sebastian is enthralling because he doesn’t know how to make his faith match his desire. Charles, whose lack of faith allows him to do what he wants, doth protest too much. (I get it, that’s the point.) Charles’ antipathy of religion is a rarity in Brideshead: a miscalculation.