Patrick Malahide played Edward Ryder, father of protagonist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), in the 2008 film version of “Brideshead Revisited“, based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Evelyn Waugh, and preceded by the well-known 1981 television series. I had to cheat and look up his character’s first name, since neither the credits nor IMDB give him one! I haven’t read the novel (shame on me) or seen the 1981 version, so this post will be free of those comparisons and concentrate instead on Patrick Malahide’s performance.
A Dotty Professor
Mr. Ryder is either the dottiest or most knowing individual alive, or possibly both, concealing a stealthy and keen wit behind dialogue that could be perceived as early onset senility. He’s a widower who’s had to raise his son from a very young age by himself, and one suspects that toddler Charles may have been forgotten on a few buses along the way. But nonetheless, he’s managed to bring his son to young adulthood without doing too much damage. He’s a somewhat old-fashioned, remote, and forgetful father; his clothes are from a previous era and he barely seems to register that Charles is leaving to study at Oxford (“You’re wearing a coat! Why?”), although he has made provisions to provide an allowance – though I could easily see him sending it to the wrong university, or forgetting to send it altogether. He also seems genuinely surprised when Charles turns up back at home at the end of term (“Back already? So soon?”). His favourite activity with his son is playing chess, and his favourite phrase is “remind me”, whether it concerns what Charles is studying, how much allowance he’s getting (“Oh, how very indulgent of me,”), or why Charles has to suddenly rush to a “gravely injured” friend’s bedside.
However, I believe that Mr. Ryder’s forgetfulness and eccentricity are actually cunning strategies to lull any observers into a false sense of security and underestimate him. He’s not as out of it as he seems; he clearly perceives Charles’ discontent and boredom at home and isn’t fooled by the telegram sent by Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), Charles’ “gravely injured” friend, logically reasoning that Sebastian couldn’t be that close to death if he was able to sign his own telegram (spoiler alert: it’s an only-slightly-deadly croquet-related injury). He recognizes Charles’ restlessness and lets him go, but not without a hint of his own hurt at being rejected, subtlely conveyed more through manner than words by Malahide. And I had to think that some of that hurt might have been due to his acute awareness of the class and status differences between the Flytes and himself; he knows there’s no way he can provide the sort of lifestyle Charles is experiencing at the Brideshead estate.
He Really Likes Owls
Mr. Ryder appears to be a retired(?) naturalist, possibly a professor of biology or ornithology, going by the contents of his extremely darkly lit house – seriously, I was wondering if he navigated around in there by sonar, like a bat – and looking rather the way Indiana Jones might look in a few years if he went dotty. His expertise in ornithology comes (hilariously) to the fore when Charles returns home to find him entertaining a bemused Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) with a description of the wondrous abilities of owls: “…Silent as the grave. And then *pop*, the mouse is dead”, complete with a stuffed owl for a prop and while wearing his dressing gown! Well, I was impressed; Lady Marchmain, perhaps not so much (although she did have a game smile on her face). One wonders if he wooed his wife that way. Then to top it off, he offers sympathy for Sebastian’s supposed “near death” several years ago (“I’m so glad your son didn’t die of his injuries,”) before departing with a happy smirk for his son and a kissy face for his owl! I was in stitches by this point. 😀
Patrick Malahide didn’t have many lines or much screen time for this role, and I’m amazed he was able to convey as much as he did, mostly through nuance and expression. Well hidden beneath Mr. Ryder’s dotty and/or sarcastic exterior is a great deal of emotion. We catch glimpses of it in a rare serious moment, expressing sadness and maybe some loneliness that his long-dead wife isn’t there to advise Charles before he heads off to Oxford, and also in his deliberately offhand acceptance when Charles quite obviously can’t wait to abandon him for Brideshead (“Well, I shall miss you, my boy, but don’t hurry back on my account,”) which seems to conceal hurt and rejection he’d never otherwise reveal – one of the reasons I think he keeps bringing up Sebastian’s “injuries”. His old-fashioned clothes, slightly mussed appearance, and absent-minded demeanour give him an appealing vulnerability even while you’re laughing at his stealthy wit; I really didn’t want Charles to hurt his father, even inadvertently. He’s a welcome bit of relief in a heavy soap, and he has an adorably ridiculous raspy chuckle (it actually sounds like something being rasped). It would have been very interesting had we gotten more of his perspective on the philosophical and moral struggles his son was going through.
The DVD contains a deleted version of Charles’ Oxford departure scene that in many ways I wish they’d kept. There’s a bit of exposition in which Mr. Ryder tells Charles he discussed him with an academic colleague (mentioning “Etruscan notions of immortality” in passing, which sounds distinctly Casaubon-like), and Malahide plays Mr. Ryder as a bit warmer and less dotty and remote than the final version. He has more lines, speaks with a faster rhythm, and generally seems to be paying more active attention to his son. It makes Mr. Ryder more approachable but less… exotic, and apparently the director didn’t want that. However, it’s a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been – I kind of preferred the warmer Mr. Ryder – and it makes me wonder what other intriguing gems might’ve hit the cutting room floor.
You can watch “Brideshead Revisited” starting at the link embedded below, or scroll down for a gallery.