Michael Hoffman’s Restoration is just about as good as any film can hope to be in which Meg Ryan plays a mentally ill 17th-century Irishwoman with an accent that comes and goes like a bad radio signal.
A compendium of elaborate set pieces and ornate costumes, Restoration is a costume drama without the drama. (The screenplay by Rupert Walters was, I hope, loosely based on Rose Tremain’s novel of the same name.) Set in 1663, the film revolves around Robert Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.), a gifted but indolent medical student who falls prey to the glitter and pomp of life at the court of King Charles II (Sam Neill). Leaving behind earnest classmate John Pearce (David Thewlis in a rare nonpsychotic role), Merivel puts his medical knowledge to work caring for the king’s pampered troupe of small dogs. Though his skill in farting at will makes him a great favorite at court, Merivel is induced to participate in a sham marriage to the king’s mistress and packed off to one of the monarch’s country estates.
And yes, there’s a reason this sounds like a set up for a morality tale. No sooner is Merivel ensconced in the country than he defies the king’s orders by falling in love with his nominal wife and allowing his transgression to be discovered by the supercilious court painter (Hugh Grant), on hand to paint a portrait of the lady. (Grantwho’s a much better character actor than romantic leadis so funny in his few scenes as the affected portraitist that the movie’s almost worth seeing for his performance alone. Almost.) Thrown out on his ear by the king, the penniless Merivel takes refuge with his old friend Pearce, who now supervises a Quaker hospital for the insane. But old habits die hard, and after impregnating Katherine (Ryan), a female inmate, he is booted out by the Quakers as well. Together, the beleaguered pair head for plague-ravaged London.
One of the film’s many historically suspect premises is that Merivel is a good doctor simply because he advocates doing nothing rather than administering the cures of the day. To bolster this point, Restoration spends a great deal of time dwelling upon the lurid primitiveness of 17th-century medicine. In one particularly anomalous scene, Merivel makes an impassioned plea for the curative effects of happy thoughts and, whipping out his recorder, convinces the Quakers to lead a group of mentally ill patients in a therapeutic dance session.
Not a second of this is at all convincing, which may be one reason the filmmakers lavish their attention on the movie’s visual details. They do 17th-century decadence best, Merivel lolling drunkenly atop bright silks and satins in a gargantuan bedstead strewn with sleeping women and dogs, or making repeated assaults on good taste as he adopts the aristocracy’s ludicrously elaborate style of dress. After Merivel plays groom in an elaborate, floating wedding atop swan-shaped, gilded barges, he is stripped and chased to his marriage bed by a screaming throng of guests. The film’s set pieces are equally over the top after the young doctor’s downfall, when he returns to a devastated London that teems with the sick and the dead. It is here that, in one of the most revolting cinematic moments in recent memory, he performs a caesarean on Katherine without benefit of anesthetic.
As Grant’s character huffs about one of Merivel’s paintings earlier in the film, “It’s an excrescence!”CP