The evocative, if restrained Brideshead Revisited is a successful adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's nurtured novel. It's less sweeping and well-crafted even though it falls short of similar constructive, thoughtful fare like Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice.
Director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) hardly condescends in a compacted, unhurried depiction of British aristocracy over a couple of decades before World War II. There is a cogent presence of religion here that tend to put wealth and class in their place.
The BBC treated the material with much dignity on the small-screen in 1981 in an engrossing eleven-part mini-series. This latest entry, positioned as prominent counterprogramming, has much in the way for arthouse patrons to acclimate themselves into the nobility of the period as it is affected by being "born again".
The script from Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones's Diary) and Jeremy Brock (The Queen) gradually involves one into the lives of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode of Match Point) and Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) as both became friends when attending Oxford University.
The recollection of Charles as a British officer during World War II puts much emphasis on the captivating Brideshead castle. His disillusionment now in middle-age solemnly reflects back to his time there with the privileged Marchmain clan.
Helped by Sebastian to get by the pressure of his scholarly peers, the platonic, strong bond leads the family to invite Charles to spend the summer as he develops feelings for his friend's alluring sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra's Dream). Charles also begins to develop quite the stroke as a painter.
Lady Marchmain, sharply played by Emma Thompson in her somewhat truncated screentime, is devoutly Catholic. Yet, she believes in the handsome suitor who happens to be an atheist. The matriarch's life isn't graced as husband Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) has relocated to Venice with Greta Scacchi's still comely Cara.
The lack of religious persuasion, though, doesn't help in his efforts to be with Julia, arranged by Lady Marchmain to be with a respected Canadian businessman. And, Sebastian's troubled state, especially through alcoholism puts him at a distance with his family and Charles, as imperious as his mother is. In some ways, the dynamic involving what Charles is going through with the closeness with Julia established offers individual interpretation of what his true intentions are, ala the desire of a more refined existence that reminds one of the aforementioned Match Point.
The trappings of aristocracy is lushly presented in a production highlighted by Jess Hall's lensing with people discovering themselves not by wealth as dissolute non-believers take slow, but surprising turns.