Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Jane Asher, Phoebe Nicholls
(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)
Like anyone who has just been broken up with – perhaps “divorced” might be an even better word – Charles veers from haughty calm to disconsolate sadness. Charles is back from Morocco in this episode (only, about halfway through, to throw himself at Latin America) and can assure Bridey that yes, Sebastian is alive if not well, and that there’s nothing criminal about his life or even about Kurt, his pathetic German counterpart. It is one of the rare times that Irons says “Sebastian,” a word that is an entire syllable better than “Lo-lee-ta.” in his mouth, without any emotion at all. In his narration “Sebastian” is flooded with gravity. In his conversations the word is much more often said with some sadness rather than laughter, though there are a couple of examples of those laughing invocations. But here he says “Sebastian” with an implied distance in his voice, as if Sebastian were a new client or a second cousin, as if Sebastian has been weeded out of his life. But Charles is not so calm when Bridey mentions that, because Marchmain House is to be sold, razed, and converted to flats. Charles, like Samgrass before him, has only rave reviews. Where Samgrass called it “quite my favorite house in England,” Charles refers to it as one of the most beautiful he’s ever seen. (Simon Jones is a treasure as Bridey, and his matter-of-fact “Can’t see it” is a relief of a line reading.) That piece of news levels Charles, widening his eyes and causing him to look around the room they’re in with new, sad appreciation for it. He is, not entirely by choice, about to cut the Flytes from his life. For years he does not see or even hear of Julia, Bridey, Cordelia, Sebastian; painting four scenes in oils for his first commission is a nearly literal “Pictures of You” sequence, doused as it is in the triumph of kickstarting his career as an architectural painter in an era of photography.
This is the episode where everyone suddenly gets much older. Phoebe Nicholls, who was twenty-four when this aired and played a middle schooler for much of it, is seen out of her long pigtails for the first time and with hair down that, while it makes her look older, puts one in mind of cocker spaniels. Diana Quick’s hair is longer than before. Jeremy Irons has a beard for most of this episode, which shouldn’t work (with that bone structure, who in his right mind covers it up with a beard?) but does. His drink order – whiskey with lukewarm water – reaches new levels of old man precision when, presented with a situation on the ocean liner where all water is iced, he receives a small pitcher of iced water and a small pitcher of boiling water to make the right temperature. (“I’ll remember that’s how you take it, sir,” the steward says, and an entire generation of English gentry cries out something to the effect of “You can’t find help like that anymore!” before cursing Jeremy Corbyn, probably.) In other words, everyone starts to look more like their own age. Irons plays a college freshman at 33; Quick plays a teenager at 35. But now years have passed, with a deceptively simple montage of Charles in Latin America as the only real hint of it until everyone, mysteriously, winds up on the same boat. There’s something about it which reminds me of the Peter Shaffer stage direction “They cross the Andes” in the way the serial combines the vastness of aging with a two-minute foray into “Latin America,” signified mostly by dogs without leashes walking in front of Charles and the presence of such Latin American things as hammocks, donkeys, and cacti. Charles presents his western trip as a way to revitalize his painting, which felt stale to him, and to try to return some of the missing inspiration to his life. It turns out that it was as much that, and probably much less than that, as it was a way to get away from his rapidly deteriorating family life. Charles has a wife, Celia (Asher), a son, and a daughter who it certainly seems should be his but who no one ever really says is his; he has been gone for two years when he meets his wife in New York. The little girl’s name is Caroline, not a name he is much enamored of; Celia, pointedly, reminds him that it’s the female name for “Charles.” The serial does not go into precisely what went wrong with the marriage short of noting marital infidelity on both sides; the romantic in me likes to think that Caroline was conceived while Charles was in England, but the father was Celia’s lover and not her husband.
Asher, though she appears in only two episodes of Brideshead, still feels underused and underappreciated. In a gloomy episode – though it’s not even a top-three gloomy episode of the series – she brings a sunshiny aspect which is like a squeeze of lemon on Charles’ needlessly saturnine mien. Celia is blissfully conventional, and one can’t help but feel bad for her as Charles mopes through a morass of gloom at being in noisy New York and onboard a crammed ocean liner. Her brother, Boy (bless his stupid, stupid heart), shares her misplaced zeal, but unlike him she has a brain in her head and a focus for her boundless energy. For another man, she would be sheer perfection; for Charles, who left the love of his life in Morocco and who hasn’t realized that he might have another, she is a cheeping, chortling chore. She tries to tease him into saying something tender, or at least something wry, about his trip and the women he “met,” but he refuses to bite. Later, after they’ve had sex and are lying in their separate beds, the two of them have a conversation in which Charles is perhaps needlessly cruel. She wants to draw an “I love you” out of him, and Charles refuses to give it again and again until finally, taking a drag from his cigarette, says, “No, I’m not in love.” Celia is hurt – the morning after Charles reduces her to tears in her bath – but she pushes forward in a way that seems not unfamiliar. She organizes a pre-dinner party in the Ryder suite, complete with an ice swan for the caviar and a cast of unusual characters. One drunk, who is Sebastian’s twin in alcoholism but Anthony Blanche’s spirit animal in observation, gets in because he looks like a cartoon character. There are Americans, Americans everywhere, including a film producer whom Charles blinds with syntax. (The curse of Americans doesn’t end with the party, either. Charles sits across from an American bishop preaching to no one in particular at dinner, while Celia sits next to a disbelieving and sloooow old Yank who ended my life with the request, “Do…recapitulate.“) They are her friends, Charles thinks resentfully, twenty or so people who are a “multitude” in this suite and compared to the consuming solitude of his past two years.
From a filmic perspective, this might be the single most impressive episode of Brideshead. Cordelia and Charles are the subjects of a long and slow tracking shot as they walk out a side door of Marchmain House and down past a gate. It’s not the Dunkirk scene in Atonement by any stretch, but often as not the serial has been content to shoot people as they speak to one another. They’ve used montages before; the summer of Sebastian’s broken toe in “Home and Abroad” speaks to me in particular. Yet that tracking shot, and the movement of people and tables and plates on a rocky sea, and above all the increasingly important use of mirrors. Charles is in mirrors all the time in this episode, rarely looking into them, mostly being reflected in some oblique way. Do they provide perspective for him? Maybe, though if they do he should take his chances with the years of bad luck and smash ’em, because perspective appears to be doing very little for his happiness. Do they give us a sense of his newer, harder personality, the one that Julia says she can see in him now? Not on their own, surely. I think of them in much the same way that he must have thought of Brideshead when he painted the rear facade of the house. We have hardly, if ever, seen that part of it before in the same way that Charles with a mustache or Charles in these abominably late ’20s suits or the side of Charles’ hide from distance, looking through his peripheral vision. They are different, in some context unrecognizable, but they are not delightful. The rear of Marchmain House does not light us up in the same way that the entrance or the fountain do; this new, sad Charles seen from many angles is less enjoyable not just to us, but to him as well.