A confession: I’ve never seen the legendary 1981 TV version of Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated novel. I know everyone still raves about this epic adaptation as a glittering pinnacle in a supposedly golden age of broadcasting, but despite my love of the book it somehow passed me by. (See here for another example of my lamentable failure to keep up with TV greats.)
Yet having just seen the new movie, uninfluenced by its illustrious predecessor, I have this week got hold of a copy of the newly reissued DVD of the TV series and have managed to watch the first hour … only another 10 to go…
Doomed, and gay, the movie unapologetically conveys. Yet when it comes to Sebastian’s friendship with Charles the film turns coy. The novel, if you read it closely, is quite clear on the nature of their relationship, but the movie hurries Goode’s Charles through his attachment to Sebastian to land him safely in the heterosexual arms of Hayley Atwell’s Julia, violently compressing and distorting the book in the process.
But it’s the new film’s treatment of the novel’s Catholic theme that is its biggest failure. Waugh’s stated purpose in writing the book was to show the “operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. In other words, his characters stray from God but are reeled back to the faith in the nick of time. Now I’ve no time for Waugh’s half-baked version of Catholic theology, which seems to be even more punitive than that preached by his fellow convert novelist Graham Greene, yet Waugh’s beliefs, repugnant though they may be, create a compelling tension on the page.
On screen, a miscast Emma Thompson in a white wig is the story’s steely enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy, Sebastian and Julia’s mother, Lady Marchmain. She’s such a monster that the film comes perilously close to turning into an Invasion of the Soul Snatchers, as one by one the story’s errant characters sacrifice any chance of personal happiness and succumb to the dead hand of their ancestral faith.