Guilt, intrigue, lust, nobility, and religion: Brideshead Revisited has it all. To the casual observer, historical epics named for and set in expansive English estates might recall romantic dramas a la Jane Austen, but Brideshead's characters, living between the World Wars, are more concerned with sin, grace, and redemption than class and manners.
Adapted from Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel, the film tells the story of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a young painter from a modest background studying history at Oxford. A chance meeting with Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw)—a dandified aesthete of dubious sexuality—blossoms into friendship, and Charles gets an intoxicating glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich and privileged that will alter the course of his life.
Sebastian and Charles spend much time eschewing study in favor of wasting time taking day trips around the countryside and holding raucous parties. After an idyllic picnic, Sebastian takes Charles to see the "place where his family lives"—the sumptuous estate of Brideshead Castle. Despite Sebastian's best efforts to exclude his family from their friendship, Charles gradually makes their acquaintance: Lady Marchmain (Emma Thomson), the matriarch of the Flyte family whose religious devotion has taken a detour toward dour guilt-mongering, beloved and witty sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), comically earnest eldest brother Bridey, and devout little sister Cordelia. (As typical with the British aristocracy, the Lord and Lady are called by their title—Marquis of Marchmain—while the family name is Flyte.) But one factor confounds Charles, an avowed atheist, and distances him from the family: they are Catholic, and he is not. To Charles' shock, even Sebastian and Julia—self-proclaimed "sinners"—do not reject their family's religion, but only wish it were not true so they could do as they please.
Awestruck by the beauty and history of Brideshead, Charles wastes no time in leaving London during holiday for Brideshead when he receives a wheedling telegram from Sebastian following a minor accident. There he gains Lady Marchmain's respect as a respectable young man, worthy of keeping an eye on her more volatile son. Sebastian and Charles spend the holiday in pastoral ecstasy, drinking too much wine, swimming in the fountains, and lounging about the estate, and as their friendship deepens, so does Sebastian's attraction to Charles. That attraction leads to a languorous kiss after a wine-soaked afternoon, but Charles, not sure of his feelings, makes no comment, and the relationship grows awkward.
At Lady Marchmain's request, Charles accompanies Sebastian and Julia on a trip to visit their father in Italy, where he meets Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), a former Catholic convert-turned-agnostic who left the family years before, driven away by his wife's rigid and sometimes grim adherence to her religious duty. In Italy, Julia and Charles are unexpectedly drawn toward one another, and when Sebastian discovers their slowly igniting passion, his heart—and their friendship—is broken.