“Restoration” vividly re-creates one of the most colorful chapters in English history: the return of the reign of Charles II in 1660 after a decade of dour Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell. A libertine but also a modernist, Charles returned the court to a life of pleasure-seeking while encouraging a flourishing of arts and sciences.
It’s a rich background for a period adventure, and in the ‘40s novelist Kathleen Winsor drew upon it for her “Forever Amber,” a bestseller about a resilient fictional favorite of the merry monarch that became a memorable, though necessarily bowdlerized, 1947 Otto Preminger film.
Director Michael Hoffman and writer Rupert Walter, in adapting Rose Tremain’s 1989 novel, have been able to capture the bawdiness of the era with a great deal more candor than Preminger was permitted, but that’s not enough to keep “Restoration” from seeming an increasingly ponderous and old-fashioned costume melodrama. Not helping matters is that the filmmakers are saddled with a hero remarkably passive for the genre.
So depressed is young physician Robert Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.) over the primitive state of medicine in 1663 London that he spends his evenings in debauchery. By chance he comes to the attention of Charles II (Sam Neill), who orders him to court--to treat one of the king’s cherished spaniels. The poor animal, tortured by the barbaric medical practices of the day, is beyond treatment but miraculously recovers, thus cementing Merivel’s fortunes, or so it would seem. In time, Charles decrees that Merivel shall be knighted and given one of England’s stateliest mansions--in returning for marrying one of the king’s favorite but most troublesome mistresses. The hitch is that the doctor must not fall in love with his beautiful bride (Polly Walker).
If you remember your English history--or “Forever Amber"--you know that there will be big challenges ahead for Merivel, even if he had been able to live up to the king’s condition in regard to his bride. Bubonic plague will break out in 1665, followed by the Great Fire of London the following year. As Merivel becomes increasingly buffeted about by fate the film becomes increasingly mechanical; despite Downey’s ability to register Merivel’s bemused, perplexed reactions to his abrupt and startling changes of fortune, the man resists mightily taking responsibility for his own destiny.
By the time he’s predictably thrust onto the road to redemption he’s spent so much time in debauchery it’s hard to accept his bursts of brilliant medical intuition. And why would a physician, no matter how eager to serve others, head for a plague-ridden London with a pregnant wife?
As in “Chaplin,” Downey is really better than the film, embracing the strengths and weaknesses of Merivel in credible fashion. Although Neill lacks the amusing hauteur of George Sanders in “Forever Amber,” he is a magnetic, cynical and capricious Charles, of whom it was famously remarked that “he never said a foolish thing or did a wise one.”
Hugh Grant has some delicious moments as a supremely foppish painter in the king’s favor, and Ian McKellen is suitably wise and deferential as Merivel’s manservant. Meg Ryan brings vitality and conviction to her tricky role as a deeply disturbed young Irishwoman cured mainly by love. Rounding out the key players is David Thewlis as Merivel’s saintly physician friend.
In the encouraging opening sequences you hope that the feel for satire and sense of the absurd that Hoffman brought so successfully to “Soapdish” will flourish and dominate throughout “Restoration,” but the film is overcome by the rumbling workings of a creaky plot as the story grows more serious. Gorgeously mounted and elegantly scored, “Restoration” is not without charm or pathos or even wit and intelligence, but it’s ultimately a disappointment.
* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality. Times guidelines: There are a couple of orgies, also some grim depictions of 17th century medical practices.
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Robert Downey Jr.: Robert Merivel
Sam Neill: Charles II
David Thewlis: Pierce
Polly Walker: Celia
Meg Ryan: Katherine
Ian McKellen: Will Gates
Hugh Grant: Finn
A Miramax presentation. Director Michael Hoffman. Producers Cary Brokaw, Andy Paterson, Sarah Ryan Black. Executive producer Kip Hagopian. Screenplay by Rupert Walters; based on the novel by Rose Tremain. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Editor Garth Craven. Costumes James Acheson. Music James Newton Howard. Production designer Eugenio Zanetti. Art directors Lucy Richardson, Jonathan Lee. Set decorator Eugenio Zanetti. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
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