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I Capture The Castle

Dodie Smith, author of classic kid tale "101 Dalmatians" also wrote the very different "I Capture the Castle," a serious look at the complexities of love. For his first feature, director Tim Fywell (the TV movie "Norma Jean and Marilyn") has transformed this autobiographical novel into a perceptive, wholly engaging drama.

Dodie Smith, author of classic kid tale “101 Dalmatians” also wrote the very different “I Capture the Castle,” a serious look at the complexities of love. For his first feature, director Tim Fywell (the TV movie “Norma Jean and Marilyn”) has transformed this autobiographical novel into a perceptive, wholly engaging drama, infusing the proceedings with a light tone that almost qualifies the film as a comedy, yet never loses sight of the unpredictability of human emotions. Pic richly deserves an audience and, given careful arthouse handling and certain critical support, should find one.

Romola Garai is teenage protagonist Cassandra Mortmain, who narrates an opening sequence in which she, at age 7, moves with her family to a remote castle in Suffolk so her father (Bill Nighy) can work on his second novel. (The vague similarity to the setup of “The Shining” is only strengthened when we finally get a glimpse of Dad’s manuscript.)

But now, 10 years have passed, and nothing has gone as planned. Dad hasn’t written anything coherent, Mom has died, the clan is two years behind on the rent, and wilder big sister Rose (Rose Byrne) — full of hormones and romantic yearnings — is going stir crazy. The one up side is Cassandra’s new stepmother, Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), a lovable flake. But the future looks grim.

Enter the Cottons, a family of wealthy Americans who have inherited the castle and the estate that surrounds it. The Cottons comprise a disarmingly frank mother (Sinead Cusack); her elder son and heir, Simon (Henry Thomas, saddled at first with a beard that appears just as hideous to Mortmain sisters as it does to us); and another, more roughly appealing son, Neil (Marc Blucas). A marriage to one of the Cottons would solve all the family’s problems, so the already love-hungry Rose throws herself at Simon.

Cottonmania is not limited to Rose, however. Secretly, Cassandra is also infatuated with Simon. And Dad starts hanging out with Mrs. Cotton, much to Topaz’s dismay.

Rose manages, not only to ensnare Simon, but even to convince herself — if only briefly — that she’s in love with him. In addition, there is a tangle of flirtations and encounters involving Rose, Cassandra, Simon, Neil, the local boy (Henry Cavill) who has long carried a torch for Cassandra, and various other characters.

Except for a very few scenes, the film is from Cassandra’s P.O.V., and Garai’s low-key and winning performance anchors the whole affair. Nighy, last seen in Peter Cataneo’s “Lucky Break,” is even more memorable here. And veteran Cusack, in a relatively small role, has some brilliantly subtle moments that flesh out Mrs. Cotton’s character in a glance.

While there is a whiff of “Masterpiece Theatre” to “I Capture the Castle” — the BBC is among the producers — it would be a shame to see it on the small screen and to miss cinematographer Richard Greatrex’s lensing of the beautiful Welsh locations.

I Capture The Castle

U.K.

  • Production: An IDP presentation of a Trademark Films/BBC Films production. Produced by Anant Singh, David M. Thompson, David Parfitt. Executive producers, Mark Shivas, Mike Newell, Keith Evans, Steve Christian, Bruce Davey. Co-producer, Mark Cooper. Directed by Tim Fywell. Screenplay, Heidi Thomas, based on the novel by Dodie Smith.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Richard Greatrex, B.S.C.; editor, Roy Sharman; music, Dario Marianelli; production designer, John-Paul Kelly; art directors, Leigh Walker, Mike Stallion; set decorator, Judy Farr; costume designer, Charlotte Walter. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival, Jan. 11, 2003. Running time: 111 MIN.
  • With: Cassandra Mortmain - Romola Garai Rose Mortmain - Rose Byrne Simon Cotton - Henry Thomas Neil Cotton - Marc Blucas James Mortmain - Bill Nighy Topaz Mortmain - Tara Fitzgerald Mrs. Cotton - Sinead Cusack Stephen Colley - Henry Cavill