By Levi Mason
Restoration focuses upon King Charles II's reign in the mid-seventeenth century. The film will please the many fans of Robert Downey, Jr. as well as lovers of grand historic dramas. Released in theaters in 1996, Restoration was well received by American audiences, while author Rose Tremain, whose book the movie is based upon, felt that the movie had a "beautiful texture" to it. The main character stars are Robert Downey, Jr. as Robert Merivel, an unusual servant of King Charles II, (played by Sam Neill). The king's mistress, Celia Clemence is acted by Polly Walker who is absolutely stunning throughout this movie. Meg Ryan plays the mental patient, Katharine, while Merivel's loyal friend, John Pearce is played by David Thewlis. Hugh Grant scores a triumph of comedy as the court painter. This is a flashy, grand, magnificent movie. What it lacks in depth, it makes up in human interest.
In the middle of the generally wretched seventeenth century, young Merivel, who has a tremendous gift for healing, saves the life of King Charles II's favorite dog, a Spaniel of course, thereby allowing Merivel to enter the King's service. He finds himself well-suited to the life of pleasure and debauchery and becomes accustomed to the good, bawdy life when King Charles II decides to marry the young doctor to one of his favorite mistresses. Making it quite clear that the marriage will be in name only, the king sets the young couple up in the nearby estate of Bidnold which the king has seized from a Puritan. Thus, the king can visit his mistress whenever he desires. Meanwhile Merivel also decides to restore the house to its former beauty with the help of Will Gates, the local man who runs the estate. Gates is played wonderfully by Sir Ian McKellen. Merivel breaks the one rule the king gave him, "don't fall in love with Celia." One day a court painter arrives to paint a portrait of Celia. When he is done, Celia will return to the king and his bedchamber. Merivel continually halts progress on the portrait. In truth Celia only loves the king. Charles discovers Merivel's romantic feelings toward Celia and banishes him to his former life as a physician. Having no other choice, Merivel joins his old friend John Pearce who has opened a Quaker sanitarium. The two men work with people who have been cast out of society and have nowhere else to go. There, Merivel meets Katherine, a young woman whose husband walked out on her after their daughter drowned in a river. Since she arrived at the sanitarium, she has not slept. Merivel helps her anxiety over people leaving her. As the two become closer, they become lovers and a sweet romance ensues. Unfortunately, his friend, John, falls ill with consumption and dies. Merival and Katherine, pregnant with his child, travel back to London to build a new life. Merivel realizes that he truly has a gift for medicine when tragedy strikes again. Katherine gives birth to a baby girl, Margaret. A dying Katherine tells Merivel to protect their little girl and keep her safe. Her last words to Merivel are that she loves him, and he finally tells her he loves her in return.
A melodramatic story darkens even more when the Bubonic plague hits London. One day Merivel is summoned to the palace where the king fears that Celia has contracted the Plague. An assistant to the king steps in and whispers something into the king's ear which turns out to be news that a large portion of the city is on fire. Merivel races out of the palace back to the city where his house is on fire and Margaret is missing, apparently dead. Dislocated, Merivel returns to Bidnold where the king arrives with his entourage then steps aside revealing Merivel's daughter, Margaret who has been saved by a neighbor. The King later tells Merivel that he is impressed with the man that Merivel has become and he is transferring ownership of the Bidnold estate to him. As the movie ends, Merivel, recently ennobled, decides to return to London and rebuild the ruins of King's Hospital.
Restoration won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-set Decoration by Eugenio Zanetti and Best Costume Design by James Acheson. The film was also entered into the forty-sixth Berlin International Film Festival. It was well received by critics such as Janet Maslin who wrote in her New York Times review, "Restoration crams in more research and period detail than it can comfortably digest, but its story is not overwhelmed by such overkill." The costumes and sets are amazing and it is easy to understand why the film triumphed in costuming At times the movie does become hard to follow because of the pace of the transitions: One minute Merivel is enjoying his time philandering around court; the next he is marrying the king's favorite mistress. That being said, the movie was able to hold together a decent plot.
The film obviously centers on the Restoration period in England which started in 1660, following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the return of the monarchy. Charles II's restoration was a period of great unrest as the Great Plague swept through England and killed a great number of people. This was followed by the Great Fire of London. An observer wrote "London was but is no more."
One of the main characters in this movie is King Charles II of England. He was a teen-ager when the civil war broke in 1642. Charles learned of his father's execution in London while the family was in exile in France. Making a deal with the Scots who name him King and gave him their army, Charles II attempted to retake his throne. He was defeated but escaped into exile again. In 1660 he was invited back to England to reclaim his throne. Some highlights of his reign were the Great Plague and the Great Fire that killed many and destroyed a large portion of London in 1663-1666. He never produced an heir with his wife, having only illegitimate children with his mistresses. In a turbulent era, he cleverly and wittily remained on the throne for twenty-five years.
The book that inspired this movie is of the same name was written by Rose Tremain and published in 1989. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989 and was the Sunday Express Book of the Year. Since publication, the book has had a very positive reception among seventeenth-century history buffs. Recently, the author published, Merivel, A Man of His Time; a wonderful sequel that one critic labeled, "not just pleasurable...but astonishing."
In the film, the dialogue was not consistently moving. There was much available substance that got passed over. Possibly the most profound moment was when the hero brought joy to the mentally ill, mistreated, and emotionally starved patients of Bedlam Hospital. What is missing was "why" he had such a passion for medicine and healing. His youthful lusts seem to be more important to the story line than his underlying desire to help people. Even the king, a moral degenerate, who after all was said and done, seemed to have some perspective, had to search for the "true" character of the young hero. Thus, the viewer follows a story that failed to explore the emotional depth of a hero and his era. Nevertheless, it is a vivid recreation of a unique time period.
As famed critic Roger Ebert stated, "What the film evokes is an age that must have been supremely interesting to live in. Sometimes I think that modern travel and communication have destroyed the mysteries by which we live. The people in this film occupy a world of unlimited choice, playing flamboyant roles, relishing in theatricality, mixing science with superstition, discovery with depravity. And by capturing that energy, Restoration avoids the pitfalls of pious historical reconstructions and plunges right into the cauldron."