Said hero is Robert Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.), a gifted young doctor from modest circumstances--he's a glovemaker's son--who is overwhelmed withdespair at medicine's lack of real efficacy againstdeath and illness. Merivel leads a drunken, debauched and spendthrift life, in spite of regular scoldings from his father (Benjamin Whitrow) and from a Quaker friend (David Thewlis).
One day, Merivel is summoned to the palace to treat an odd emergency, and lucks into becoming afavorite of Charles II (Sam Neill), the "Merry Monarch" whose 1660 restoration to the throne, after Cromwell's Puritan government fell, gave the period its name. Merivel is made royal physician, and he enthusiastically takes to the hedonism of the Caroline court.
The trouble starts when the king "asks" Merivel to be part of an elaborate royal deception. Merivel is to marry Charles' ravishing mistress, Celia (Polly Walker), but never to consummate the marriage. He's to be a "paper bridegroom" as a front for theking's affair. In return, he gets a knighthood and alovely estate at Suffolk. (The historical Charles hadnumerous mistresses and more than a dozen children, none legitimate.)
It goes without saying that Merivel does fall in love with Celia. This leads to a rambling plot--the script, by Rupert Walters, is adapted from a novel by Rose Tremain--taking in such famous incidents of the period as the Great Plague of '65 and the Great Fire of London the next year.
Merivel is one of a tradition of wastrels who must be redeemed. His story is an epic, episodic picaresque, a string of wild adventures befalling a symbolic everyperson. He's of the same school as Lucius or Don Quixote or Peer Gynt or Mr. Pickwick or the grievously maligned Huckleberry Finn.
Merivel is of the same school as these characters, perhaps, but surely not in the same class. Restoration's overfamiliar, even banal approach to plot and characterization keeps it from being a wonderful film. But it's pretty rousing all the same--a thick, hearty slice of period costumer, with some visual imagination and a couple of first-rate performances.
Downey's soft, full-cheeked, boyish glamour makes him perfect for the role of Merivel. He balances his usual flirty playfulness with flashes of terror and melancholy that hint how the practice of 17th-century medicine has gotten to him, kept him whoring and drinking to ward off despair.
Hugh Grant has a few short, sly scenes as a supercilious, ghoulish-looking portrait painter. Meg Ryan isserviceable as an unhappy woman in the Quaker sanitarium where Merivel works. Sir Ian McKellen is comfortingly mellow as a loyal manservant. Walker need only be ravishing to be right for her role; she fulfills this requirement.
The standout performance, however, is Neill's dryly comic turn as Charles. Usually little more than a competent, general-purpose leading man, Neill brings complexity and bearing to this libertine kingofsomehow joyless spirit. When he speaks to Merivel, it's in the slow, plain tones used by an impatient adult to a child, yet it's Charles who's childlike; terrifyingly cranky, up past hisbedtime in theAgeof Reason. He'snot quite a buffoon, though--he has a child's hard, brusque honesty.
Director Michael Hoffman previously made Soapdish, a crackerjack, underrated screwball comedy with a great ensemble cast. Like Terry Gilliam, Hoffman is an American with a Brit's sense of whimsy. The comparison of the two men pretty much breaks down at that point, however.
Hoffman wants the film's context to be paradoxical: We're at the dawn of the age of rationality and humanism, yet the tone is of magical wonder, like a fairy tale. And the eye-popping sets (by Eugenio Zanetti) and the gorgeous photography (by Oliver Stapleton) never seem infused with the director's ingenuity and wit, as they do in a Gilliam film.
The upside is that Hoffman has a balanced sensibility which Gilliam often lacks. As typical as the story line of Restoration is, Hoffman wants to use it to animate every aspect of a society with becoming generosity.
He revels in the color and sensuality and freedom of thought that the Restoration symbolizes, but he never lets us forget for long the wretchedness of the poverty just outside the palace, and he also gives the Puritans their due. It's this point of view that makes Restoration so satisfying, overambitious though it may be.
Michael Hoffman; with Robert Downey Jr., Sam Neill, David Thewlis, Polly Walker, Meg Ryan, SirIan McKellen, Hugh Grant, Ian McDiarmid and Benjamin Whitrow.