Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Restoration or Redemption? Or Both?

"We live in an age when many are made fools and many are deceived."

Lady Celia (Polly Walker)

"Restoration," which premiered on this date in 1995, was an historical drama set in the 17th century at the time that King Charles II was returned to the English throne following 11 years of Oliver Cromwell's dictatorial rule.

The new era was a mass of contradictions. While giving its subjects unparalleled (to that time) discovery, exploration and individual freedom, it also bore witness to natural disasters and antiquated medical practices. If you think science and superstition clash in the 21st century, you should read about it 350 years ago.

The movie followed a young doctor (Robert Downey Jr.) who came to be in Charles' (Sam Neill) favor when he saved the king's favorite dog. He wasn't trained in veterinary sciences, but, nevertheless, he saved the dog. That opened the door for the young doctor to be appointed to care for the king's dogs — and, in the process, enjoy a narcissistic lifestyle — until the king arranged for him to marry the king's favorite mistress, Lady Celia (Polly Walker). Why would the king do that? Well, it was a diversionary tactic, intended to deceive another of Charles' mistresses.

So he went through with the sham of a wedding. Only one complication — Downey's character was smitten with Lady Celia. For this, the king banished him from the court. He returned to his life as a physician at a Quaker sanatorium.

"Michael Hoffman's 'Restoration' plunges us into the heart of 17th–century England, and the court of Charles II, who followed the austere Cromwell years with a riotous time of sensual excess," wrote film critic Roger Ebert. "The film has many virtues, but for me the most enchanting is simply the lust with which it depicts a bold and colorful era in history."

Downey's character managed to transfer his lust from Lady Celia to an Irish mental patient named Katharine (Meg Ryan), with whom he conceived a child. Katharine died during childbirth when the baby proved too large to deliver in the conventional way so Downey's character performed a 17th–century C–section — sans anesthetic.

Ebert liked the fact that the story was played out against the backdrops of the Plague and the Great Fire of London. I agree — in the same sense that the burning of Atlanta gave an historical context to the events in the lives of those depicted in "Gone With the Wind."

Downey's character was profoundly influenced by what he encountered in the Plague, and he matured before the audience's very eyes. Ebert wrote that it was "the key emotional arc in the film."

"Restoration" told a timeless tale. It was set in 17th–century England, but it could have been at any time and in any place. It wasn't the story of the king. It was the story of the doctor and his maturation from a self–centered youth to a man.

"What the film evokes is an age that must have been supremely interesting to live in," Ebert wrote. "Sometimes I think that modern travel and communication have destroyed the mysteries by which we live. The people in this film occupy a world of unlimited choice, playing flamboyant roles, relishing in theatricality, mixing science with superstition, discovery with depravity."

When I watched it for the first time, it occurred to me that a better title might be "Redemption" because that really was what the story was about. But it was also about the restoration of a previous life that had been taken from Downey's character.

"Restoration" won both of the Oscars for which it was nominated — Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.