Miramax Films

Restoration (1995, Michael Hoffman)

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.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

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).


Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


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