Restoration is two parts period drama, one part character study, one part comedy. It’s often tragic, both because of events occurring and because it takes place in 1665 England and 1665 wasn’t a great time to be alive given the state of medical knowledge versus, you know, disease. Or mental health. The general complete misunderstanding of mental health (though at least they don’t think people are possessed with demon) plays a big part in the dramatics, the comedy, and the character study. There’s always the possibility for comedy… until the plague shows up. Once the plague arrives, it’s full dramatics for a while. The film doesn’t lose its sense of humor, just—appropriately—doesn’t employ it.
The film tells the story of 17th century medical doctor Robert Downey Jr. (who does an amazing job playing English). Despite innate medical talents, Downey doesn’t like how it’s the 17th century and people die from terrible things all the time. It’s a downer. So when he lucks into a court appointment for the King (a delightful Sam Neill), he takes it. It means he gets to drink and carouse and not go bankrupt from it like if he were a working stiff. Things get complicated when Neill then makes Downey marry one of his mistresses (Polly Walker) to legitimize her because Downey immediately falls for her. This portion of the film, after the gruesome medical realities of the opening, is the most comedic. Especially after Hugh Grant shows up as a portrait painter who annoys Downey so Downey annoys him back. Downey’s also got a sidekick—an affable Ian McKellen—during this sequence.
But it’s 1665 and Downey’s in his position by grace of the King and when the King decides no more grace… down Downey falls. He ends up in the 17th century equivalent of a sanitarium, run by Quakers—Downey’s best friend, David Thewlis is a Quaker, which the film actually never plays for jokes when contrasting Thewlis and Downey in the first act. In fact, Downey’s played for the laughs. A fantastic Ian McDiarmid runs the sanitarium and Meg Ryan is one of the… well, patients. They call them “inmates” though; not treating them unkindly but bound by the Quakerism when it comes to trying to help them. Outsider Downey’s the one who has the idea maybe people suffering mental health problems can (and should) be helped. If one of the better off patients who’s clearly suffering from profound depression and happens to look like Meg Ryan… well, bonus.
The plague’s arrival changes everything—again—and puts Downey through multiple harrowing experiences, some small, some big, some internal, some external. Rupert Walters’s script is never particularly outstanding, but the plotting and pacing are fantastic. Restoration moves at a steady clip, knowing exactly when it needs some humor, knowing exactly when it needs some sympathy. Hoffman’s direction of the actors is quite good, making up for his mostly mediocre composition. He and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton do a fine job showing off the beautiful, ornate Eugenio Zanetti production design—the film’s got some great sets, gorgeous costumes, and so on—but Hoffman’s pretty obvious with all of it. He’s clearly more confident with the lighter elements than the more serious ones. It works out but it’s where Restoration feels like a missed opportunity. Hoffman feels essential when it comes to the performances, but not with the film’s visuals.
Downey’s character only develops because of the people he encounters in his life—Thewlis, Walker, Ryan, Neill, McKellen, Grant—but none of the supporting parts are substantial. Neill has a lot of screen time, but he’s a plot foil. He’s the King after all. Ryan’s kind of got the biggest supporting part, but not really any more screen time than any of the other supporting parts. Her performance (as an Irish woman) is fine; she’s very likable. She and Downey definitely work well together. But not a great part, as written.
Everyone’s good—Walker, Thewlis, Grant. No matter what they do, funny, sad, whatever, it’s all about how they play off Downey anyway. The film’s narrative distance is superbly steady in its tracking of Downey.
James Newton Howard’s score is good. Appropriately lush and dramatic. Restoration is a well-executed production.
The key is Downey, who’s essential to the film’s success even though he shouldn’t be—i.e. that quarter character study. Downey’s experience of the film’s events and how they affect him is the film’s greatest achievement. Downey’s performance sets the tone, everything else has to meet that level. Great performance in a solidly but not superlatively written or directed film. The film’s all about Downey, letting it hinge entirely on his performance. And he excels.
Thanks to Downey, and also Hoffman, Walters, Ryan, Neill, and everyone else in various degrees, Restoration’s consistently successful.
Directed by Michael Hoffman; screenplay by Rupert Walters, based on the novel by Rose Tremain; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Garth Craven; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; costume designer, James Acheson; produced by Sarah Black, Cary Brokaw, and Andy Paterson; released by Miramax Films.
Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Robert), Sam Neill (The King), David Thewlis (John), Polly Walker (Celia), Meg Ryan (Katharine), Ian McKellen (Will), Hugh Grant (Finn), and Ian McDiarmid (Ambrose).