Restoration (1995)



(directed by Michael Hoffmann, 1995)

I don’t usually watch a film adaptation so soon after reading the book itself, but the DVD of Restoration arrived very quickly and I couldn’t resist reacquainting myself with Robert Merivel in cinematic form. I think it helped to have read the novel so recently: it made sense of the storytelling, some of which may seem confusing if you aren’t already familiar with the plot. Also, a small note for those in the UK: the film currently seems to be available only in Region 1 format, except for a version with permanent Dutch subtitles, according to Amazon.

The plot is summarised in my post on the novel, so I don’t want to repeat myself so soon afterwards. Suffice it to say that we follow the feckless young physician Robert Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.), who is forced to return to his old trade when he unexpectedly loses the favour of his patron Charles II (Sam Neill). The title Restoration refers not only to Charles’s return to the throne, but also to Merivel’s journey towards moral redemption. I have a lot of time for Robert Downey Jr., although I’m most familiar with his quick-talking arrogance as Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark, and was pleasantly surprised by his touching Merivel. Moving easily from bubbling silliness to bewilderment to conviction, he can convey a lot with the tiniest shifts of expression or posture. He wasn’t quite as I’d imagined Merivel in my mind – he was younger, better-looking and less absurd – but he was really extremely good.

David Thewlis, as Pearce, was a perfect foil to his performance and, thanks to his sympathetic portrayal of Pearce, I was more convinced by the depth of their friendship in the film than I was in the book (maybe because the book only shows us their relationship through the prism of Merivel’s guilt). I wasn’t so fond of Meg Ryan’s Katharine, who comes across as a more conventional love interest and thus less interesting than the character in the book, but I’m not sure how much of that is Ryan’s doing and how much the screenwriter’s. She was also the only character in the film with a distractingly 1990s hairstyle. The supporting actors were all good, but many of them are now so famous for other things that I found it extremely difficult to see them as their present role. For example, Merivel’s benevolent steward Will Gates is played superbly by Ian McKellen (Gandalf!); the lovely Celia by Polly Walker (who will never be anyone but Atia for me); and the artist Finn, rather mincing, in a very absurd hat, was Hugh Grant (insert English romantic comedy of your choice). It’s odd that such a well-known cast can be a distraction, but it means that the actor often gets in the way of the character.


Will Gates (Ian McKellen) and Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.) left holding the baby

For the most part the film follows the book quite faithfully – there were patches of dialogue I recognised verbatim – but there are a few small changes, which in my opinion were generally unsuccessful. Please be aware that there are spoilers for both book and film in the remainder of this paragraph – skip on to the next paragraph if you prefer. You’ll be safe there. For the rest of us… The book’s Merivel is a rounder, more self-obsessed, less sympathetic creature than his cinematic counterpart – he isn’t as likeable, or as triumphantly redeemed, but I found him much more gripping company. The film’s Merivel is a little too toned down and simplified in the later parts. He loses some of his edge and he falls in love too easily with Katharine – who becomes very much the route through which he is redeemed; she might as well never have been mad at all. I couldn’t help missing the subtler nature of their relationship in the book – all woven about with guilt, obligation and frustration.

Oh, and the ending is so very Hollywoodised as well. Note how in the film Merivel receives the whole of Bidnold from a grateful king, who also comes in person to return his daughter. In the book, more plausibly, he is granted merely one little room within a house which has passed back into the king’s own hands, and Merivel finds Margaret himself. Yes, yes, these are quibbles and minor things. But worth mentioning, maybe, because they pull the sting from some of Tremain’s brilliance and what remains, for all its pleasant cadence, is a neutered and less memorable version of the story.

It’s a simple fact that Restoration doesn’t work as well as a film as it does as a book: the story is most successful when told in Merivel’s own inimitable voice. And yet I think the film rises above the category of noble failure; it’s better than that. It’s fun; the locations are beautiful; the sets are fabulous (although I became irritated by the large fragment of Rubens’s The Disembarkation of Marie de’ Medici at Marseilles, which Charles II was inexplicably harbouring at Whitehall); and the opening scenes on the London quayside looked like moving Canaletto paintings. The fashions are ruthlessly faithful, as far as I can tell, to the wilder excesses of 17th-century dress, with gorgeous gowns for the women (Celia in particular), and frills, ribbons and petticoat breeches for the men. Plus, it gains Brownie points for featuring a scene in which Merivel is shown wearing a plague doctor’s mask (I find these fascinating – and eerie. They must have risked terrifying the patient to death, if nothing else). One technical thing to note is that the opening frames of the Region 1 DVD are of dreadful quality, but fear not: it settles down very quickly.

If you like this kind of thing, there are two wonderful films you should see if you haven’t already. Both give a more rewarding picture of this period than I found here. First is Molière, set in 17th-century France: it’s effectively the French answer to Shakespeare in Love and it stars the excellent Roman Duris, whose brooding is balanced out by a fine gift for physical comedy. Of course, as a French production it’s immensely stylish and romantic; but it also has a wicked sense of humour. Then there’s Stage Beauty, starring Billy Crudup, which is also set in Restoration London. This unusual film focuses on the actors who’d made their careers out of playing female roles on the London stage during the period when actresses were forbidden for reasons of public decency. When Charles II revokes the prohibition, and women can again play women, actors like Ned Kynaston find their whole raison d’etre crushed in front of them. As Ned learns to be a man again – in every sense – the film offers a sensitive and moving glimpse of a lesser-known part of theatrical history.

Buy the film (Region 1 only)


Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.)

3 thoughts on “Restoration (1995)

  1. Charlie says:

    I only read the parts of this that weren't about the story itself, but from what I did read this sounds a film (and therefore book) to get to soon. Though I find it difficult to get into Hugh Grant's characters so it could be a challenge (I like him enough but he's very samey!) Love Stage Beauty, it's pretty understated but a good film. Thank you for the introduction!

  2. Leander says:

    Do bear in mind it's only Region 1, though (unless you don't mind Dutch subtitles!). To be fair to Hugh Grant, he's actually not that similar to his usual bumbling characters in this one and it's only a cameo role, so you don't see much of him. I would say read the book first, if you can – that way you'll get the most out of the film too. Enjoy! Let me know what you think if / when you get round to it…

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