RESTORATION (UK, 1995) ***
"Restoration," set from 1663 through the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London (1665-1666), makes a strong impression from the start. My first reaction was "Oh! The smell of it!" Not that the film stinks --it is quite good. But it opens with medical scenes so primitive in the art of healing, so unsanitary, that you can just about smell filth and putrefaction. In my olfactory imagination, different smells persisted--albeit attenuated-- even when the action shifted to the madly luxurious Royal Palace.
I sometimes get the same feeling from westerns and other films set in pre-World War II days. It is only in rather recent times that people would or could wash regularly. The perfume industry developed more to hide odors than to please the nose.
"Restoration" is the picaresque story of young doctor Robert Merivel who seems more keen on wenching than on curing. In his day, those were respectively easy and near-impossible avocations. Odd circumstances make of Merivel the doctor and boon companion of King Charles II who had been restored to the throne in 1660, after the years of Cromwell and his Puritans.
When the King decides that Celia, his youngest mistress, is becoming obstreperously jealous of His Majesty's other amours, he marries her off to Merivel. The physician is knighted, given a lavish country estate and the warning that his marriage must remain in name only. Expectedly, Merivel falls in love or lust with her, and gets his privileges revoked.
Taking refuge in a Quaker hospice run by his best friend Dr. John Pearce, he starts practicing medicine again ... and becomes fond of mental patient Katherine. What follows finds him on the road, through plague and fire. He ministers to people all he can.
By its very picaresque nature the film is episodic--not a drawback here as episodes are developed at colorful length. It is bawdy, sexy, satirical, in turn languorous and energetic, splendid in its scenes of luxury or (suggested rather than graphic) debauchery, powerful in scenes that go from naturalistic to apocalyptic.
The visuals are non-stop striking with period reconstructions, extravagant costumes, masks and disguises, sophisticated special effects. If nothing else, the picture is a series of eye-popping tableaux. Photography is first-class, with regular use of single-source lighting (candles, windows, etc.) on a par with "Tous les Matins du Monde." At times I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," even though that film was set in the 18th century.
Again, as a picaresque work, "Restoration" cannot be faulted for its shifting moods. It goes from hyper-realism to near farce to almost surreal decoration and mockery of the upper classes to sympathy for the have-nots. The lightness of the first part turns to pathos, drama and tragedy. The last sequences, while as visually imaginative as the earlier ones (note the cavernous smoke-filled chamber in the palace), almost feel like a tongue-in-cheek parody of the conventions of melodramatic novels or plays, with such devices as recognition by medallion or the King as Deus ex machina.
The film's title has an obvious double edge, the showing in fascinating detail several aspects of life during the Restoration and simultaneously charting the moral restoration of a young wastrel into a responsible adult. Among the symbols is the Great Fire as a purifier.
The cast is uniformly fine. Robert Downey Jr., shares with the visuals the center of the stage, and is certainly impressive in a demanding part. His accent is fine, his slow transformation, convincing.
Downey has appeared in over 30 films, from throwaway to major. In all the roles of his I remember, he was top-notch, versatile, and talented. Why he is not a super-star must be a part of the long, complicated, irrational story of the marketing of movies and actors.
Beautiful Polly Walker is uncannily like a mix of Paulette Goddard and Jeanne Crain. Her American Cuteness (in the best sense) Meg Ryan keeps her title in a secondary, unglamorous role. Likable Sam Neill makes a cleverly campy King. Thoughtful David Thewlis is thoughtful and solid, a far cry from his great over-the-top performance in "Naked." Hugh Grant does well in his small part of a foppish, conniving painter.
Director Michael Hoffman started out as a costume designer then moved on to directing. I know only one of his pictures, the wildly amusing "Soapdish." The four that preceded it (he also scripted three of them) are "Promised Land," (with Meg Ryan), "Some Girls," "Restless Natives," and "Privileged."
I had never even heard of those titles before. From tidbits gleaned in my research it would seem that these are quirky, original small movies that might well deserve to be better known.