February 2, 1996 in Seven

‘Restoration’ Captures 17th-Century England

Michael H. Price Fort Worth Star-Telegram
 

Robert Downey Jr. makes a grand pawn of the fates in “Restoration,” Michael Hoffman’s astonishing epic-on-a-budget production.

If the film’s announced tab of $18.5 million is to be believed, then the company has achieved near-miracles in this day of overpriced filmmaking, when a $175-or-so-million “Waterworld” looks insignificantly slicker than some $5 million Roger Corman opus. But “Restoration” has “sumptuous” written all over it - a lavishly designed, opulently lensed monument that could almost pass for something from the glory days of MGM.

Rose Tremain’s source novel recalls satirist Roger Price’s admonition that “When we’re prudes, we wish we were scoundrels, and when we’re scoundrels, we wish we were prudes.” It is the scoundrels who have taken over from the prudes in 17th-century England, where a restored Stuart ruler, Charles II (Sam Neill), seeks to indulge every last lustful passion for as long as his reign lasts.

The royal palace summons a young physician named Merivel (Downey), who’d rather carouse than practice medicine. Merivel is more heel than healer, but even he comes illprepared for the dirty deeds this wicked King Charles has plotted. Ordered to wed the royal mistress (Polly Walker) for the sake of appearances, Merivel finds himself defying the king’s decree by falling in love with his unapproachable wife. He will lose everything as a consequence.

From that point, Rupert Walters’ screenplay takes on an unexpected episodic structure, chronicling the young physician’s own struggle for redemption - rather like reverse-images of the “Rake’s Progress” paintings. The scenario involving charity work in an asylum yields the most satisfying transformation, reuniting the disgraced Merivel with a selfless chum (David Thewlis) from comparatively more innocent times.

Director Hoffman makes confident and decisive transitions from the “Tom Jones”-like rakishness of the first reel, to the harrowing desperation of the midsection, to the spiritual struggle of the finale - covering a lot of ground in scarcely two hours. These are jarring contrasts, but essential, and the audience experiences them as if through Downey’s own eyes.

Downey himself takes full advantage of the star vehicle, though the film threatens to misappropriate his talents in the third act, using Downey’s Merivel as a sort of Forrest Gump to bear uncomprehending witness to sweeping passages of history. Downey prevails, however, with a superbly nuanced and “feeling” performance.

Support is uniformly fine, notably Sam Neill as the debauched monarch and Hugh Grant as a flamboyant artist. The star in a greater sense is the very production, however - an astonishing job of capturing a time and a place in minute detail.

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “RESTORATION” Location: Magic Lantern and Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by Michael Hoffman; starring Robert Downey Jr., David Thewlis, Sam Neill, Polly Walker and Meg Ryan Running time: 2:03 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Restoration:” Janet Maslin/New York Times: Serving as brief dramatic backdrops are the bubonic plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. As that may suggest, “Restoration” crams in more research and period detail than it can comfortably digest, but its story is not overwhelmed by such overkill. This big, rollicking film has more than enough heart. Amy Dawes/Los Angeles Daily News: A classic example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts, “Restoration” is an ambitious, visually splendid odyssey through England’s age of enlightenment that is somewhat undermined by a passive, episodic central story. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: The good things in “Restoration” are frustratingly wrapped up in bad things. A case in point: Meg Ryan, as an Irish peasant who knows a lot about people. It’s a pleasure to see Ryan in a change-of-pace role, but her character is unbearably wise, and director Michael Hoffman allows her to indulge in too much “Lookat-me-I’m-not-wearing-any-makeup-so-I-must-really-be-Acting” hijinks.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “RESTORATION” Location: Magic Lantern and Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by Michael Hoffman; starring Robert Downey Jr., David Thewlis, Sam Neill, Polly Walker and Meg Ryan Running time: 2:03 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Restoration:” Janet Maslin/New York Times: Serving as brief dramatic backdrops are the bubonic plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. As that may suggest, “Restoration” crams in more research and period detail than it can comfortably digest, but its story is not overwhelmed by such overkill. This big, rollicking film has more than enough heart. Amy Dawes/Los Angeles Daily News: A classic example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts, “Restoration” is an ambitious, visually splendid odyssey through England’s age of enlightenment that is somewhat undermined by a passive, episodic central story. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: The good things in “Restoration” are frustratingly wrapped up in bad things. A case in point: Meg Ryan, as an Irish peasant who knows a lot about people. It’s a pleasure to see Ryan in a change-of-pace role, but her character is unbearably wise, and director Michael Hoffman allows her to indulge in too much “Lookat-me-I’m-not-wearing-any-makeup-so-I-must-really-be-Acting” hijinks.


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