The miniseries based on Waugh's novel was beyond question well ahead of its time for 1981 TV fare: it was widely regarded as a dazzling experience. For all that, to me the long succession of episodes seemed to drag, echoing my impression of so many of the college papers I was then having to correct: a lot of padding to cover for not enough substance. Episode after episode seemed filled with a lot of swanning around, leaving the plotline swamped under a morass of glitter that was both visual - the handsome leads and, of course, Castle Howard and its dreamy grounds - and auditory - Geoffrey Burgon's lush score. Of course, this was a function of a subject that remained risqué at the time. However, the plot was treated so cagily by director Charles Sturridge as to give precious little to puzzle out to anyone, like me, who hadn't read the book - beyond Charles Ryder's adoration of the indolent Lord Sebastian and his opulent castle.
This realization of Waugh's novel, by contrast, is in several ways more satisfying. It has the great advantage of overtness about the relations between the central characters, and about the love triangle that follows. On the negative side, a compression of the story was required by the film's shorter duration -- and it is a long, subtle novel that suffers when oversimplified. Also, John Gielgud is always an impossible act to follow, and his part was a high mark of the '81 production. But his counterpart, Michael Gambon, replaces Sir John's absent-minded indifference with a ringing note of aristocratic disdain, and at least to me stays afloat where most others would likelier sink.
Emma Thompson is also in this, and both supporting parts are sensitive and excellent. As for the leads, the camera does not seem to gloat on them as unrelentingly as the earlier production. This has its advantages -- especially if, like me, you consider that acting is not Jeremy Irons' strong suit, despite vocal skills in a class with Burton's (and Gielgud's, for that matter).
So if you see this, expect more straightforward story-telling and a less leisurely, eye-candy experience. The initial production's outstanding art direction, costumes, etc., are closely matched, and the direction is every bit as good. This more recent production also obtained the rights to use glorious Castle Howard again: a wise move. Some very nice features also come with this DVD.
An easy recommendation, especially if you saw the miniseries.