Saturday, 13 December 2014

A Michael Hoffman Film - Restoration (1995)

Michael Hoffman is an American who won a scholarship to an Oxford college in England where he realised his fascination with the young pompous Englishmen's ways on campus, so different from what he was used to in his own country, could easily translate into a film. And so the student film Privileged was born. However since I have unfortunately still to find this treasure to add to my DVD collection (yes, as you guessed it does star a young Hugh Grant in his first ever role), I will instead today be talking about another film that Hoffman directed in later years and which is Restoration (1995).

Whilst in this film, too, Hugh Grant makes an appearance (Hugh does seem to love to work with the same people over and over), the main star of this venture is definitely Robert Downey Jr., around whose character the story evolves. For Downey is Robert Merivel, a bright young doctor much more absorbed in worldly things than in his vocation, to the chagrin of his best pal John Pearce (played by David Thewlis who is better known for his part as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series).

The story follows Merivel through what he thinks is his lucky break, which turns out to be also a disappointment when the one lady he falls in love with is very clearly the one he can't have. But life must go on and unfortunately also without his previous fortunes, so that he ultimately goes back to caring for the sick, first at his friend Pearce's sanitarium and later, following more bad luck (and some valuable life experiences too), back to where he started in London, caring for the ones that really need a physician. This time it is the plague and under the name of his now-dead friend Pearce, Merivel does good wherever he goes until the time comes when he is once again summoned to the King's palace where his good fortunes originally started. It is there that his conversion to a better man really becomes complete and not only so, but I believe also where he finally totally lets go of his love which had gone unrequited. Despite the plague and the Great Fire of London of 1666, Merivel's story ultimately ends on a happy note.

I must confess I was impressed with Robert Downey Jr. in this project, most especially because in this film he is stripped of his usual confident onscreen persona for most of the two-hour journey. It is his soulful eyes, in fact, that work overtime this time, portraying all the inner feelings of the worldly-but-naive Merivel who, for the most part of the film, is subjected to disappointments of every kind. The character in question is the kind that starts out as a cad but ends in conversion to a better person  but which has the audience on his side from the very first. Downey is one of few people who can pull off this stunt.

Meanwhile, if Downey plays the cad, this time real-life hottie Hugh Grant plays only a minor role and even that, in a ridiculous costume and wearing too much make-up, so much in fact that I am quite ready to believe that a non-fan might miss it being Hugh altogether. Dan Whitehead's unauthorised biography suggests this role might have been his way of staying out of the spotlight directly following the press-storm around his 1995 arrest. I concede to the fact that only a hard-core fan could possibly like his character Elias Finn and then only on the merits that we (fans I mean) can never get enough of the typical Hugh-character stutter and fidgety type.

If I were to rate this film, I'd be quite confused on whether to rate high or low, simply because it excels in some aspects whilst disappointing in some others. The storyline (borrowed from a book by the same title and which refers to England's Restoration period) is original and the historical setting and costumes impressive, but there still seems to be something lacking in this film, especially in its first part, something I can't quite seem to pinpoint. And to add insult to injury, Merivel's excessively frilly clothing and curly wig, despite being in keeping with the era in question, are quite unnerving on the usually self-proud figure of Downey, making him look like a fool. But that could be because I am only reviewing this nineteen years after it was filmed, and quite a while after Downey's name became synonymous with Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes.

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