But that's not a bad thing. Though the 11-hour miniseries -- which was a practically verbatim take on the book -- has been cut down to a trim two and a quarter hours, the essence of the story is all there, and it's turned out to be a marvelous marriage of great actors, solid direction and a stunning setting.
The film was shot at the same immense and gorgeous Castle Howard that was used for the TV series. It stands in for the title mansion, Brideshead, family home of the outrageously wealthy and, of course, dysfunctional, Flyte-Marchmain family. They're headed by a powerful, no-nonsense, and very Catholic mother (Emma Thompson) and a disgraced father (Michael Gambon). But it's their offspring -- the free-spirited but troubled Julia (Hayley Atwell) and the swishy Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) -- with whom fresh-faced and not-so-innocent Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) becomes involved.
And it's the Catholic Church and this family of its staunch followers that gets a bit of a drubbing, mostly through biting satire. Set in the 1920s, Brideshead is also a study of the strict separation of classes in England. Charles, a middle-class college man, knows he doesn't fit in with these folks, but upon meeting the fascinating Sebastian at Oxford, he can't resist his invitation of friendship. Or does he see it as an opportunity to latch on to some of Sebastian's family money? That's something that's left up to the viewer. The same goes for Charles' apparent naivet & eacute; about Sebastian's blatant coming on to him. Could Charles really be that clueless?
The story is rich with relationship problems. Mom most likely despises Sebastian (and the feeling is mutual); Sebastian and Julia have little to say to each other; Sebastian and Charles become the "best" of friends; Sebastian's mom and Charles are wary of each other; Charles and Julia find themselves attracted to each other (Sebastian is not pleased about this); and Charles and his father have trouble saying as much as "Hello, how are you?" even when they're the only people in the room.
Among several wonderful performances, Emma Thompson chillingly stands out in a too-small part, and Ben Whishaw -- last seen as one of the Bob Dylans in I'm Not There -- is both exasperating and sympathetic as Sebastian. But the film belongs to relative unknown Matthew Goode, who's in nearly every scene. It's a terrific performance and one worth noting, because it's likely the last one before Goode becomes an international superstar as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias in next year's Watchmen.
A warning to fans of the Waugh book and the much-lauded TV series: A whole lot has been left out, and, surprisingly, much has been invented. (There's more here to the Charles-Julia-Sebastian relationship than Waugh ever imagined.) There will be complaints about how Sebastian's character has been diminished. But if you want to know his details, just curl up with the book. (PG-13)