It’s no secret that this adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated novel originally had David Yates at the helm, while Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly and Jude Law were attached to star. Yates left to direct the remaining entries in the Harry Potter franchise, and the three leads were recast. This information is intriguing and disappointing, yet unfair to the filmmakers who ended up working on the project.
The finished film stars Goode as underprivileged atheist Charles Ryder (he was an agnostic in the original story), who by chance encounter winds up entwined and enchanted with the aristocratic and sternly Catholic Flyte family. Goode acquits himself professionally in the role but does little to distinguish himself from Jeremy Irons, whose career rose to prominence after playing Ryder in the 1981 British miniseries.
Ryder first meets Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University and the two become unlikely friends (the film accentuates the homosexual undertones of their relationship). Sebastian is played by the talented Wishaw (the disturbed protagonist from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer). Not to take anything away from Wishaw, but it’s tantalizing to imagine what Jude Law would have done with the role.
At first Sebastian wants to keep his new friend for himself, but before long Charles is smitten with Sebastian’s sister, Julia (Atwell). The rest of the narrative plays out in a series of class and religious conflicts. Comparisons to last year’s Atonement can certainly be drawn, especially given the World War II backdrop the two share, though Ian McEwan’s novel was published more than 50 years later.
Yates’ replacement as director, Julian Jarrold, got a terrific performance out of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the otherwise slight comedy Kinky Boots, and some nice scenery in the otherwise stale Becoming Jane. Here he tries to have the best of both worlds and comes up short, particularly stumbling with dramatic storylines in the second half—probably the effect of condensing Waugh to feature length (the miniseries ran 11 hours). The results, however, would still have benefited from a little more charisma from the lead actors.