Page to Screen: Restoration (1995)

based on Restoration by Rose Tremain

After watching X-Men, I wanted to look into Ian McKellan’s filmography a bit more. In doing so, I stumbled across Restoration, a period film from 1995 that not only features Ian McKellan, but also stars Robert Downey Jr. Since I haven’t seen much of Downey’s work pre-drug bust, I nominated it for Tuesday Night Movies with a cinephile friend of mine since it was unavailable on Netflix as a DVD but available on Instant. (Obviously, this was before Netflix separated the two services in a frankly rude move.) I didn’t even realize it was based on a novel until the credits, but I was sufficiently stunned.

Restoration takes place in the 1600s, during, well, the Restoration. Robert Merivel is a thoroughly debauched young doctor, to the chagrin of his Quaker best friend, John Pearce. When Merivel catches Charles II’s eye by daring to touch a beating heart, he’s summoned to the court to heal one of his spaniels, which he does by a complete fluke. Merivel revels in life at court, abandoning his medical career and falling into debauchery. But when Charles II decides to hide one of his mistresses by marrying her to Merivel, Merivel does the one thing Charles asks him not do—fall in love with her. Disgraced and cast out, Merivel returns to doctoring at John’s side and working with the mentally ill, where he meets Katherine, an abandoned Irishwoman. But even as Merivel rebuilds his life, the plague creeps closer and closer to England’s shores…

While we watching this movie, I began to refer to it as Last Friday Night: The Movie. You see, I have concluded that the Katy Perry song “Last Friday Night” is about an alcoholic desperately trying to reassure herself that her weekly booze-fueled rampages are cute and make people like her. Oddly enough, the first half of Restoration reminded me of that. Once Merivel has gotten into the court, he forgets everything but drinking, wearing increasingly ridiculous clothing, and womanizing, and he barely realizes that the reason Charles brought him to court was because he was a rakish doctor, not just a rake. It’s actually quite hilarious; Merivel has little to no idea what’s going on around him at any given moment, and just tries to sail through it until he can get back to partying. But once Merivel falls out of favor, the film takes quite a dark turn—even as Merivel finally realizes his true calling is, in fact, medicine, he loses the people he loves and is forced into a desperate situation. Oh, and then London catches on fire.

What’s strange about Restoration is that things just happen to Merivel. Rose Tremain, who wrote Restoration, said that “the story has no logic”, which is more or less true (Dedukhina). We mostly just watch Downey’s Merivel drift from situation to situation until he finally settles down at the end of the film. It’s a testament to Downey’s acting ability that this isn’t painful. I always find it oddly dissonant to see the younger Downey in films—he has this dewy, beestung, Raúl Juliá quality to him that he’s grown out of since, as well as the strange habit of going slack-jawed to convey astonishment. But he’s still a fine actor, making the first part of the film enjoyable by being a complete idiot and the second part enjoyable as Merivel develops into an actual human being once he’s faced with people who do things for reasons other than pleasure. David Thewlis’ John Pearce is absolutely lovely; slim, aristocratic, and his faith is presented as something positive that Merivel lacks. Their scenes together are fantastic; while they don’t have large amounts of screen time together, they have a warm, friendly chemistry that’s lovely to watch. Less lovely to watch is Meg Ryan as Katherine; she does just fine, but she seems so concentrated on keeping up the accent and the crazy that she doesn’t physically emote, which makes her suffer in comparison to Downey and Thewlis. While I found this film by rifling through Ian McKellan’s filmography, he has a minor part as Merivel’s housekeeper; he’s lovely, but fleeting. Hugh Grant playing Elias Finn, an artist trying to get into court via painting a portrait of Merivel’s wife, has a bigger impact, in that it is hilarious to watch Hugh Grant playing a scheming dandy.

It’s a beautiful film—it did win Oscars for set decoration and costume design. It’s lush and, especially when it’s at court, just fun to look at—Merivel’s wedding, in particular, is a brightly colored and dimly light bacchanal. But there’s still something very nineties about it. Period films usually escape dating by, of course, dating themselves in the story; you can’t call Elizabeth very nineties. But there’s something very dated in this film’s approach to its setting. I have a feeling it’s the efficient cinematography on top of the rather poor video quality. Restoration is actually coming to DVD this year, so here’s hoping that it’s been remastered, even if it barely deserves it.

Bottom line: In Restoration, Robert Downey Jr.’s Merivel floats from situation to situation without any impetus from himself, but he makes the light-hearted foppishness of the first half fun and does quite well in the darker second half. The cast is solid, save for Meg Ryan’s Katherine, and lush and period in a strangely nineties way. If you’d like.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Restoration (1995)

  1. Sounds interesting. Might have to check it out at some point.

    As for McKellen, he’s taken a lot of small parts in movies over the years. I recall seeing him in a small, but important role in THE SHADOW with Alec Baldwin.

    I’d like to see his production of RICHARD III at some point. It always looked interesting.

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