Brideshead Revisited S1E9, “Orphans of the Storm”

Dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Starring Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick, Jane Asher

(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)

“Oh, yes” Charles says. “He was the forerunner.” The beginning of this episode charts, as every other episode must, really, the ongoing changes and worsening of the Flytes. Yet it seems that everyone is very much the same as they were before. Sebastian is still totally off the map; Cordelia has traded in her school Catholicism for good works Catholicism (insofar as being a nurse for the Nationalists is good anything); Bridey is still, in Julia’s words, “like a character from Chekhov.” Julia’s sad little wedding ceremony turned into a metaphor for her sad marriage to Rex. Even Charles doesn’t alter our impressions very much. Whatever you thought he was doing with Sebastian, whether it was platonic or obsessive or sexual, is proved by the lovely vague term “forerunner.” Julia talks about raising a child Catholic even though she’s lost her religion herself; she mentions to Charles over dinner the strangeness of wanting to give someone something she didn’t have to give. Charles refers to these years montaged in previous episodes as “dead years,” and he’s not all wrong. Nothing grew then, not even any special hatred or resentment. Charles merely dislikes his wife, while Julia is only confused by Rex’s idiocy. What was part of Charles and Julia is still part of Charles and Julia, down even to their motivations. He tells her that he’s not asking for love. “Oh, yes, Charles,” she replies. “You are.” It’s as if she could read his mind from his first term at university, when he told us in voiceover, “But I was in search of love in those days…”

There are two funny consequences to all this sameness, both of which are brought to a head and exploded in “Orphans of the Storm.” One is that Charles and Julia give in to their unsurprising desires in a sex scene which, for ’80s television, I can only describe as “torrid.” There’s a new musical theme for it and everything, an eruption of horns that is almost indecent in its bluntness as it scores Charles doing squat thrusts in the cucumber patch. It takes a while to get there – almost ten minutes, or twenty percent of the episode, from first kisses to flagrante delicto in one of those tricky mirrors that seem to follow Charles around – but when it does it’s like a geyser. Did you know that the veins in Jeremy Irons’ neck make a perfect “V” shape? I didn’t either until I saw this episode. It’s not a terribly romantic scene; for both of them, especially Irons between his veins and the seeming push-ups he does during sex, it seems more strenuous than anything else, like heaving a great object. When it’s over, Julia’s fingers tremble over Charles’ back; he rests, quite literally, on her breast. She’s still got her wedding ring on. Aside from the musical cue, which is at least a little goofy, there is the marvelous irony of how well the sex works in stopping the storm, as if Charles and Julia had dropped a Jonah into the waves and appeased the sea. As if waiting for that event to happen, after two days of total solitude, Charles returns to his cabin as servants bring breakfast to cabins. Celia is eating a beefsteak and tomatoes, her illness magically cured presumably by her husband’s newfound virility.

The other hilarious thing that happens is the reappearance of Anthony Blanche, who has always been the most insightful person in the whole serial. His speech as he tries to force his way into Charles’ exhibition is among my favorites of his, which is saying something:

I have not come to a social function. I do not seek to scrape acquaintance with Lady Celia. I do not want my photograph in the Tattler. I haven’t come to exhibit myself; I have come to see the pictures.

Charles, who learned long ago about Anthony’s incorrigible and idiosyncratic perspective, welcomes him in.

Out of all the people who come to see Charles’ paintings of Latin America, only Antoine is wise enough to understand that it’s the same old Charles, no different from the man who left England so long ago. (He asks Charles upon meeting again, “Have I changed? Would you recognize me?” Charles has only to nod and smile deviously at his old friend, who is as conspicuous as they come.) People are struck at this new exhibition by Charles’ seemingly wild new outlook, advertised skillfully by Celia as the work of a man who was tired of finding beauty “ready-made” in country homes and desired to “create it himself,” which is a remarkable thing to say about nature. Anthony is as breathlessly candid as ever with Charles, and provides a review that is him through and through; as he promised to do, he “explains” the paintings to the artist:

Anthony: But, they tell me, my dear, that you are happy in love. And that is everything, is it not? Or nearly everything?

Charles: …are they as bad as that?

Anthony: My dear, let us not expose your imposture before these good, plain people. Let us not spoil their innocent pleasure. We know, you and I, that this is all terrible tripe. Let’s go before we offend the connoisseurs.

Anthony takes Charles to a gay bar lit in awful yellow-green and darkroom red, which he has frequented in the past as “Tony.” He has to chase someone off while they’re in there for him as well as for Charles, who has an offer to rumba declined by his host for him. Anthony makes the case, whether or not he knows it, that Charles’ best work was done at Brideshead, something “delicious” which is not so “macabre” as other Englishmen do and aspire to do. The further he’s gone from the literal grounds, the less unusual and special Charles has become. Of course, the reason Anthony shows up in this episode has much less to do with teaching Charles about what’s wrong with his paintings and much more to do with what he knows already after a single day returned to England. Charles and Julia are lovers, he knows, and already the world is blaming Charles for his indiscretion with such a lovely, attentive wife.

This is our final entry with Celia as it was for Anthony Blanche, who in her two episodes is so new that she always casts a spell on me; even though she is the sister of Boy Mulcaster, who we’ve run into many times already, she seems like the new mate in a terribly incestuous situation, the first really different person we’ve had since Mr. Samgrass was tut-tutting and butt-kissing his way through Brideshead, or perhaps since Rex blundered into Julia. Unlike the Flytes and Charles, too, Celia has a gift for dissembling. Sebastian’s lies are found out almost as soon as they’re told, and no one else hides the truth. Celia is a saleswoman, which is of course too vulgar for the other aristocrats and their would-be hangers-on to abide for long. She sells Charles’ paintings with ravishing praise and not an ounce of thought to what hyperbole she’s spewing. She sells the children to Charles as best she can, although Charles is too smitten with his lust for Julia and too resentful of his wife to do the decent thing and come home. (This conflict gives us memorable lines like, “I do think you’re being perfectly beastly, but this is no time for a family rumpus” and “My cuckold’s horns made me Lord of the Forest.” If “Orphans of the Storm” isn’t the most quotable Brideshead episode, it’s got to be very close.) Her most successful sell is that she and Charles are absolutely content with one another, the pensive painter and his delectable wife, winning and never at a loss for words. It is in her last lines of dialogue with Charles that she can be stern. She will make his excuses at home, she says, but she wishes it didn’t have to happen like this. As with Antoine, her forthcoming absence is a sign of an old focus in Brideshead made new; the story must return to the Flytes and to their most devoted interloper.

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