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Formulaic Restoration still proves an exotic feast


Directed by Michael Hoffman.

Written by Rupert Walters.

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Sam Neill, David Thewlis, Polly Walker, Meg Ryan, Ian McKellen, and Hugh Grant.

Sony Nickelodeon.

By Scott C. Deskin

The film Restoration has a story that is at once exotic and familiar. A ne'er-do-well 17th-century English physician, James Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.), spends more time whoring than curing patients. A strange opportunity falls at his feet when his friend John Pearce (David Thewlis) escorts him to see a man with an exposed, beating heart; though no other physicians examine this phenomenon at close range, Merivel courageously puts his hand on the man's heart. From this scene, it appears the bumbling doctor has found his true gift in medicine: showing boldness and compassion for his patients. It's a rather striking image, one that will haunt him (and the audience) for the rest of the film.

By chance, King Charles III (Sam Neill) witnesses Merivel's extraordinary act, and he brings the bold young physician into the royal palace. Once Merivel oversees the miraculous recovery of the king's dog, he secures a niche for himself in Charles' court. Merivel leaves the Hippocratic Oath and his other altruistic ideals in the dumpster as he becomes a merry fool, content to wallow in opulence and pleasures of the flesh. But it's not until the king marries him off to one of his mistresses, Celia (Polly Bergen), and bequeaths to him a title and estate that Merivel realizes how bored he is with life in the lap of luxury. Even the attentive good will and redecoration advice from the housekeeper, Will Gates (Ian McKellen, almost unrecognizable from his alter ego in Richard III) doesn't help. Merivel's fate is sealed when his inevitable feelings of love for Celia are revealed and divulged to the king, due in part to the machinations of a sly, ambitious portrait artist (Hugh Grant).

So the king banishes him from "paradise" and warns him of the plague which is blanketing the city. To earn his keep, he must work in a Quaker asylum in the English countryside along his old friend and colleague Pearce. Though reluctant at first, Merivel rediscovers his talents for healing and begins his journey of self-awareness. The Quakers there are initially suspicious of his strange methods to revitalize the mental patients there, including music and dance, but increasingly they see that his approach does things that their supervised bleeding cannot.

Among the inmates, Merivel meets Katherine (Meg Ryan), a widow whose ills include walking about the stone-lined courtyard in a strange, lumbering gait and refusing to sleep at night; naturally, they develop a friendship which leads to more pronounced romantic feelings. Katherine, through the love of a man to help ease the pain caused by the one who left her, is "cured" of her illness; and Merivel finally learns that love is more than carnal pleasure of ill-considered infatuation. When the couple moves toward London and closer to the impending plague, Merivel is faced with additional challenges to his character that test his worth as a physician and a human being: Think of the journey as a more cerebral Forrest Gump.

Every so often, mainstream cinema develops an infatuation with period pieces; whether they be Shakespeare on film or adaptations of "classic" novels, these productions are big-budget, big-name affairs. The goal of these films is to evoke a feeling of awe and sometimes nostalgia for the grandeur and charms of an era long in the past. Since the Merchant-Ivory beacon has dimmed lately, other ambitious filmmakers have boldly stepped forward to fill the gap. American director Michael Hoffman (Soapdish) shoots both the extravagant palace decor and the dirty city dwellings with appropriate awe and modesty; the set design of the king's palace is indeed a wonder to behold, but it never seems to overwhelm the context of the story, nor the actors themselves.

The heart of the film belongs to Downey, who in recent years has attempted to broaden his range beyond plain, big-screen situation comedies to more ambitious projects like Chaplin. With Restoration, Downey holds the interest of the audience for a solid two hours; even if the story of full-circle redemption is predictable, this pleasant use of formula creates an effective, unpretentious feast for the eyes.