Brideshead Revisited

3 Stars – Thought Provoking

The memories of the missteps of our young adult years haunt many of us. Not yet able to act with the wisdom which comes from experience, the decisions we made are often the best we knew how to do in the moment, but we revisit them with a sense of guilt seeking God's grace. This reality is what compelled Arthur Evelyn Waugh to write his best known novel "Brideshead Revisited" which has now been made into a film by director Julian Jarrold ("Becoming Jane").

A convert to Catholicism, Waugh explains that he wrote this novel as a way to communicate to a secular world that God's grace is available. Trying to do so without being obvious or sentimental, Waugh's subtle style has been debated by Christians and non-Christians alike ever since he wrote this book in 1945. Though the film downplays the lead character's conversion at the end of the story, the film retains the book's multilayered and provocative study of life and our need for God's grace.

The memories being retold are those of Capt. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode). Narrating the story, he takes us to the steps of Brideshead Castle where he has been stationed during World War II. As we enter his memories, we go back years earlier when Charles first visited the majestic and mysterious mansion. Befriended by Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) whose family owned the estate, Charles is captivated once again by the beauty of the place as his memories unfold.

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A self-avowed atheist whose mother passed away when he was young and whose father has little interest in him, Charles is taken in by Sebastian's family whose Catholicism defines them. But it is a dysfunctional Catholicism forced upon them by the manipulative and controlling matriarch of the family, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). Fearful of God rather than experiencing God's grace, Lady Marchmain has deeply injured the souls of her children. Sebastian's sexual identity is a struggle he masks with alcohol and his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) struggles to be the good girl her mother demands while trying to find her own path toward love and happiness. Their father, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) has fled from Brideshead and lives with his mistress in Venice.

What makes the story powerful is that though the Catholicism exhibited by the Flyte family is not a healthy representation, yet God works within their lives just as he does within the life of Charles who has rejected God's very existence. It is this prevenient grace of God – God reaching out to us before we are even aware of our need for God in our life or how to respond to Him - which makes this film a subtle testimony of how God works in any person's life. It is not through the best of religious expressions but through normal and broken people who are attempting to find their way in an unpredictable world. The bonds God creates with His people are able to overcome whatever misunderstandings and missteps we might make. It is revisiting this truth that makes this tale powerful.


1. In the novel, Evelyn Waugh had Charles kneel in the chapel of Brideshead and pray a prayer with "ancient words newly learned." In the film, he enters the chapel and resists the thought to snuff out the light he finds there in the flame of a lit candle. Which presentation of his conversion do you think is more effective? Why?

2. There has been a long debate on the exact nature of Charles and Sebastian's relationship. Why do you think this is so important to so many?

3. The experience of Charles is largely autobiographical to the author as both look back to their young adult years and later conversion to Christian faith. When you look back to the missteps of your past, how do you deal with it? Where do you find forgiveness and freedom from guilt?

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