It Ain't No Renaissance


Uptown Theater

SOME MOVIES SHOW up for the party dressed in eccentric fashions, and they want to play games people haven't heard of. They're not bad guests, but the party is more in their head than in the room. The noble and sincere Journey of August King, for example, dared to explore a moment in American history (circa 1815) that just "isn't done"--isn't part of a genre. And now Michael Hoffman's long-delayed Restoration tries to be a self-defined version of something no one's ever really seen. All of which raises a lot of questions, so here are the answers to some.

What's the period? Restoration England, 1660 and a few years beyond, doesn't figure much in moviedom. That's too bad, because it offers juicy elements for a mini-genre: wanton behavior after a period of repressive Puritan rule; huge advances in both science and the human imagination (from Newton, John Milton, William Congreve, and others); great public works, global exploration, and immense plans for the future--but then the one-two punch of the bubonic plague and the Great London Fire. Sounds like Atlanta before the Civil War, Warsaw before the Holocaust, or... urban America just before AIDS.

Add to all this the fact that exceedingly flamboyant dress--for men in particular--was encouraged, and you could almost count on the Masterpiece Theatre crowd. (Director Richard Lester gave us a hint of the costumer's joys to be found in this era with his two Musketeers films in the 1970s.)

Who the heck are these stars? Robert Downey Jr. remains a great talent with a slippery persona. He did Charlie Chaplin note-perfect in an otherwise a boring movie; he shows up at award ceremonies in bizarre designer getups; he's all too happy to play "difficult" characters, like the capricious but loving brother to Holly Hunter in Jodie Foster's recent talkathon, Home for the Holidays, another odd duck that didn't take wing. Here, Downey is a physician named Merivel at the dawn of modern medicine. But he's as dedicated to the pursuit of women as he is to the secrets of human health. He impresses King Charles II (Sam Neill) with his scientific courage, gets hired to heal a royal spaniel, then starts a downhill slide when he agrees to marry the King's mistress.

The rest of the cast makes for a hard-to-sell, though talented, package: Neill (wry Aussie, star of Jurassic Park); Meg Ryan (yes, cute again, but haunting too, as an Irish woman gone depressive); David Thewlis (made big marks with a small coterie in Naked); Polly Walker (Enchanted April); Hugh Grant (playing an actual character, though one who still stammers); and Sir Ian McKellen (great actor, now in Richard III, but never quite a box-office draw).

Quirky Romp, or Movie-with-a-Message? Given its characters' behavior and the turbulent social setting, the movie could have been much colder and riskier. But signposts pop up constantly to tell us what's important. Dr. Merivel has a gift, see, and he abandons it for selfish pleasures, but then others recognize the gift at regular intervals, and tell him to use this gift or lose it. He does lose just about everything (love, title, position, wealth, influence, etc.) and then darn it if he doesn't find the gift again at last. So the script may be gifted but it's not talented.

Then it's a Lush Epic? Lush Epic always sells, right? On the scale of period pictures, Restoration occupies a lower register; requiring lavish costumes and ridiculous settings, it does them justice but then stints on the details. One "wharf" location (corner of a London park, maybe?) occurs over and over; the King's great hall and a few rooms in Merivel's manor stand for unseen other luxuries. You can't fault movies for limited budgets, and this one has used its money well, but certain effects are present by their absence. In short, Restoration has neither epic content nor epic visuals.

So is this movie entertainment only? A male weepie? Satire based without credit on the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys, a guy known mainly to frustrated English majors looking for racy stuff? All of the above. Idaho-born, Oxford-educated Hoffman fiddled with this movie for a year or more, trying to please several masters. And while Downey is especially good at being charming but difficult, Restoration also requires him to be contrite and, well, restored. He's a 300-year-old role model, yet all around him are opportunities for social comment, eccentric historical detail and naughty shocks. To mix a cable metaphor, this is a movie that should have been less Lifetime and more Discovery Channel and MTV.

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