Politically Charged Double Feature: Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Moonlighting (1982)
Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons
1981 was a banner year for Jeremy Irons. He made a splash through the prestige circuit, both on television with the lavish miniseries adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, and the “un-filmable” adaptation of John Fowles novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Both are beautiful pieces of cinematography, mining the spaces of England for both both its luxurious past and consumeristic present. But both could not be more different from one another, one a prestige project costing $10 million dollars (an unheard of budget for a miniseries at the time) and taking two years to shoot, the other a quickly and cheaply made examination of working class life. Brideshead Revisited and Moonlighting are also diametrically opposed politically: the former luxuriating in the English elites, the latter examining the precariousness of working class men in London.
The novel Brideshead Revisited comes from Evelyn Waugh, a right wing reactionary. The books major themes are the decline of the aristocracy and the catholic church in England, morning the loss of the prestige and privilege of British elites. This is the celebration of Britishness at its worst, as the readers and viewers, much like Waugh himself, are dazzled by the spectacle of privilege they neglect to interrogate imbalances of power and privilege in British society. Waugh also indicates the men of the “age of Hooper”, a stand in for the rise of the modern man, and thus the fall of the wonders of nobility. Ultimately, Brideshead is a novel mourning the death of splendour in a modern age, promulgating conservative tenets that are indicative of Waugh’s own romantic notions of a “proper” England.
When Charles mentions that “modern art is rubbish”, it is clearly the reactionary sentiment of Evelyn Waugh, but I always wonder how such a sentiment comes across in the miniseries itself. The filmmakers highlight every instance of queer subtext within the text, and seems to be at war with the text itself, trying to bend its meanings towards more progressive ends, relatively speaking. We hate Lady Marchmain for being innocently cruel to her family, manipulating Charles to do her bidding. Charles’ life is clearly influenced for the worse in getting wrapped up with the family, but ultimately, the miniseries acts as a faithful adaptation, and Charles falls for “the twitch upon the thread” towards a spiritual conversion to Catholicism. While I adore Irons and Anthony Andrews within the miniseries, I lament that the series becomes outright unpalatable after the first episode, a process of diminishing returns that dazzles in period-piece spectacle while destroying everything that made the series thrive: the love between Charles and Sebastian.
Moonlighting is a completely different piece, the story of four Polish workers illegally refurbishing a house in London to earn enough money to last a lifetime in Poland. Jeremy Irons plays Nowak, the only one that speaks English, and is responsible for their stay in London.
Based on the true story of Polish workers stranded in London when Poland declared martial law in 1981, the sense of precarity is incredibly palpable throughout the film, as the men work to exhaustion while Nowak buys and steals the necessities for their production and their lives. Other men deride they as communists, while Nowak must navigate through London without getting caught.
While illustrating the dangerous positions these men are in, the film also critiques economic systems of oppression. In particular, the Polish union Solidarity, something Nowak almost angrily denies being a part of when questioned at the airport. His compatriots are short-sighted. They want digital watches, representing Solidarity in its quest for the restoration of capitalism in Poland. But as Irons’ character knows well, capitalism is no boon, but oppressive. Nowak tears down Solidarity posters in London. When is fellow workers snatch the deposit money to buy their digital watches, Nowak only utters one word to the store clerk: “Bye.” From there the film immediately cuts to the men buying their digital watches, something they would see as a “goodbye.” The linguistic double meanings are clear. Consumerism is an all-encompassing ideology, and Nowak’s comrades have been sucked in.
In sum, I would heartily recommend Moonlighting (if you can find its bare bones DVD release), but cannot in good conscience recommend Brideshead Revisited. The latter is a property that succumbs to the worst of British fetishization: the fascination and uncritical consumption of archaic British traditions. It’s remarkable to see the flexibility of Jeremy Irons’ performance capabilities in each piece, though much of his tactics stay the same: illustrating emotional complexity through stillness and restraint. But if you still aren’t convinced, just listen to Gene Siskel rave about Moonlighting multiple times.