Resplendent in its evocation of teeming, gaudy, plague-stricken 17th-century England, “Restoration” earns an instant place in contempo screen history for converting a reported $ 18.5 million budget into a lavish, old-school period epic. Sweeping yet intimate drama boasts an exemplary cast headed by Robert Downey Jr., who does bravura work as a wastrel physician. Pic’s main liability, an overly episodic story that loses some steam in the second half, might, however, limit its commercial domain to aficionados of artier historical fare.
Story’s historical setting is so rich in fascinations, it’s surprising the movies haven’t made more use of it. In 1660, the Stuart monarchy, restored to the throne after a decade of dour Puritan rule, unleashes a long pent-up torrent of hedonistic and intellectual energies. Embodying both, Robert Merivel (Downey) is a doctor who devotes more passion to whoring than to his patients, despite the warnings of his father and the example of his colleague and best friend, John Pearce (David Thewlis).
Summoned to the palace, Merivel cures an ailing royal spaniel and soon finds himself a favored courtier of King Charles II (Sam Neill). The position allows him to exercise his sensual appetites, but at a price. When the king gives him a country estate and a knighthood, and bids him, as a ruse, to marry the royal mistress but not, under any circumstances, fall in love with her, Merivel approaches a precipice.
And falls. Celia (Polly Walker), his gorgeous but untouchable wife, scorns him as the sodden fool he has become. More and more in love, he tries to trick her into returning his passions, but the intervention of a foppish court portrait painter (Hugh Grant) scotches the scheme. When the king finds out, he strips
Merivel of land, title and spouse.
Had the tale continued on with these characters and this situation, it might have made for a more dramatically cohesive whole. As it is, the narrative gears shift. Our hero goes out into the world, finds Pearce working in a Quaker insane asylum where he gradually rediscovers his vocation and fathers a child by a female inmate (Meg Ryan) before returning to London in time for the Plague and the Great Fire.
Besides slipping in tone from engagingly ribald to earnest, pic’s latter stages prove the downside of picaresque stories: The unfolding episodes can feel more arbitrary than necessary, leaving the characters more as pawns of chance (or authorial whimsy) than architects of their own fates.
Though the end of the tale ties things up thematically, its second half seems more an effort to illustrate history via Merivel than to illuminate the man using the era as the spectacular backdrop it is. That’s a shame, because Downey’s work is so bold and compelling it leaves no doubt this superb actor could do virtually anything asked of him.
Director Michael Hoffman handles his fine cast with a consistency that also distinguishes pic’s visual elegance and striking re-creation of England during one of its most tumultuous periods. Production designer Eugenio Zanetti, costumer James Acheson, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton and their tech collaborators all deserve the highest marks for their contributions to pic’s extraordinary period flavor and detail.