It is almost impossible to watch this new version of Brideshead Revisited without the double distraction of what has come before.
The first is Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel of gilded youth and guilt-oppressed Catholics between the wars, which I read aged 17 and found so bewitching I haven't dared to look at it again since.
The second is the Granada TV serial of 1981, which overcame the traditional problem of literary adaptation by simply making it as close to a replica as possible: every last pause and sigh in the book seemed to end up on the screen. A recent revisit of the serial on DVD showed it had aged astonishingly well, and its status as the most faithful book-to-screen translation will, perhaps, never be challenged.
So can anyone explain why a film version, with its obligatory short-cuts and blurrings, might be a good idea? No doubt it came down to the argument that this would be a Brideshead for "a new generation" (yawn), with the attendant novelty of fresh faces, a switch in its storytelling technique, or a shift in the thematic emphasis.
Well, let's take them in order. The faces are certainly fresher, since Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews – memorable as they became – were rather too old for the parts. In their place are Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder and Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte, both of them fine actors but ill-used here.
Goode, deprived almost entirely of the voiceover that makes sense of Charles's inner life and outer perspective, struggles manfully with a role that now renders him a sneaky social climber rather than a besotted interloper. Whishaw's casting is just calamitous. Sebastian is the figure on whom so much of the story depends: his charm and recklessness are the irresistible forces that bind Charles and doom himself, but Whishaw can't manage either. He's just a spoilt, petulant queen who deserves a good slap. Hayley Atwell, as Julia, is beautiful enough, yet even were she able to match Diana Quick's glittering hauteur and inward torment, her most important scenes – the one at the fountain, the other after her father's death – have been cut to ribbons. Yet almost the entire psychology of the novel has been thrown out.
Watch the Brideshead Revisited trailer