The trailer oozed sex. The film is rather polite. From script to set to screening, Buzz delves into the cleaning up of Brideshead Revisited...
Blame it on Merchant Ivory. The starchy duo’s eight-year heyday of literary adaps – from the mid-’80s and A Room With A View to The Remains Of The Day – bred a rep for handsome but oppressively stuffy British period dramas.
Being branded “a bit Merchant Ivory” these days is practically a death knell. Hence, Joe Wright’s Atonement throbbed with an overtly sexual pulse and his previous Pride & Prejudice came laced with a modern glint. Even Julian Jarrold’s previous flick Becoming Jane had authoress Austen given to lusty imaginings. Maybe it’s crass to say it’s vital to sex up today’s period flicks – but that’s what the brain trust behind Brideshead Revisited clearly wanted us to think, with a bodice-shredding trailer that oozed sexual vibes and depicted a louche Michael Gambon offering up two of his children as bedroom playthings with the lascivious line, “What a lot of temptation…”
But having caught a sneak peak, Buzz can reveal the new £10m adaptation of Brideshead is no raunchfest. It’s all toffs, teddy bears and a tormented portrait of a dysfunctional aristocratic family, ruled by the iron-fisted, uber-Catholic Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). It’s also about the middle-class interloper Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), who trespasses into their haughty, emotionally frozen domain, moving from the crude innocence of his relationship with Lady Marchmain’s tortured son Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) to destructive, socially ambitious desire with her daughter Julia (Hayley Atwell).
Shot over 11 weeks last summer – with filming taking place in Yorkshire, Oxford, London, Venice and Marrakech – Brideshead comes 27 years after the devoutly faithful (and beloved of most Brits born before the ’70s) Granada mini-series adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1943 novel. While Waugh’s tome is all homosexual repression and Catholic guilt, Charles’ social-climbing ambitions are given more airing in the new version, which Ecosse Films producers Robert Bernstein and Douglas Rae thrust into development five years ago, hiring Andrew Davies, the doyen of prestige crit-lit telly, to adapt.
That’s when the sexing-it-up label first attached itself to Brideshead. Davies is the writer who turned Mr Darcy into the housewives’ heartthrob by pouring Colin Firth into a wet T-shirt in Pride And Prejudice) and his filter made explicit what Waugh had only hinted at. “Andrew Davies’ script was like, ‘She holds her ankles as he takes her,’” says Goode. “And you’re like, bemused] ‘Really? She holds her ankles?’ That made us laugh. I expect Andrew’s a slightly dirty fellow.”
“Andrew’s an irascible character and he is very interested in sex,” agrees producer Douglas Rae. “I felt he had gone down that road but it wasn’t something that we particularly wanted to follow.” Indeed, after Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly were approached to play Charles and Julia, only for original director David Yates to jump ship for Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, the producers turned to screenwriter Jeremy Brock (Mrs Brown) to tone down Davies’ YouPorn version. Now Charles and Julia bump uglies but, says Goode, “It’s not porn. You can’t just suddenly have a couple of bottoms slamming away.”
Eroticising Brideshead included taking creative licence with Waugh’s novel. Scenes were added at the Venice Carnivale to show Julia’s first stirrings of lust for Charles and to ramp up the love triangle, when Julia doesn’t go to Venice with the boys. Another add-on to Waugh’s novel is the quick, come-on kiss Sebastian plants on Charles’ lips and their naked swim in Castle Howard’s fountain. In fact, the duo’s relationship is saturated with homoerotic tension but it’s left up to the viewer to decide if they’re ravishing each other every night – which is all a bit of a tease. So, do they shag or not?
“There was nothing in the novel that suggested that Charles Ryder had had a physical – and penetrative – relationship with Sebastian,” says Rae. “So it would have been wrong to put that in.” “There’s no doubt Sebastian’s gay, but was in a period where people didn’t pigeonhole things like that so I prefer to not nail it,” says director Jarrold. “It isn’t an explicit gay love story and I didn’t want to make it that.”
Why so coy? Yes, it’s set in the upper echelons of unfailingly polite society, where tasteful decorum is essential and you wouldn’t expect anything too lascivious but, with its sexy, sellable cast of young Brit arrivistes – Whishaw, Atwell, Goode – it seems like a strange move (Goode’s got his own concerns too: “I’m just worried that everyone will think Charles is a dick”). Simple reason, really: they needed a PG-13 in America to make the film financially viable. But, as Dangerous Liaisons proved, spicing up a costume drama with sexual suggestion can really rake in the readies. Uma Thurman may be the only one who gets naked in Stephen Frears’ pre-French Revolution romp, but watching Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich run
around rococo interiors with pressed bosoms and lusty intentions is still the benchmark for how to make period movies drip with sex.
Brideshead tries, but the film’s only bedroom scene is shot largely above the shoulders. Back to that steamy, pulse-quickening trailer then, which seems to promise so much more. “The British trailer is deliberately aimed at getting an audience in who didn’t see the TV series: ie the under-30s,” says Rae. “If we’ve done our job right, hopefully they’ll come because it looks like an intriguing love story. Atonement looked incredibly raunchy but you never saw any flesh in that. You don’t need mountains of flesh flying around to be sexy.”