The pleasures of "Restoration" are arcane but nevertheless real. It represents an almost lost genre, which might be called the epic of ideas, a movie as big as it is smart.
It is a film with room for a view: royal courts, jammed with costumed courtiers; an ancient city, teeming, squalid, wondrously alive, yet nearing death by plague and fire; a sense of a vast pagan society given over to pleasure; a young man in search of his soul in the flesh of women who instead finds it in the last place he thought he would: in a hospital crammed with the wretched dying.
The scene is London, 1660, under the newly minted stewardship of Charles II, and it can be no coincidence in Michael Hoffman's film that -- take away the periwigs and the rouge on the men's cheekbones and those ridiculous high-heeled buckled shoes they wore, and throw in some Levi's and Timberland boots -- it's an age very like our own, perhaps uncomfortably like our own. A long night of rigid discipline has just been removed with the fall of the Puritans, for better or worse. Charles (Sam Neill) is an intellectual voluptuary, and in his image, society rebuilds itself as a libertine's paradise at the smallish top end and against his image in the larger lower end as a miasma of squalor and suffering. And there ain't nothing in between, and there ain't no way to get from one to the other.
Seemingly stuck in the muck is the young doctor Merivel (Robert Downey Jr., much less annoying than usual), who has a great medical mind and a scientist's instinct for the truth but is so overcome by the agony that is daily life that he has given himself over to whoring and drinking. But one day, by accident, his boldness (at medical college, where he dares touch the heart of a maimed man) captures Charles' attention, and Merivel becomes one of the rare ones to make the trip from the muck to the light.
He's like a PFC pulled from Fort Dix, N.J., and dumped into the Playboy Mansion on Chicago's North Side. In his eagerness to feed his appetites, he becomes court buffoon, to the disgust of all who once believed in him.
Thus Charles, tired of him, decides to use him in a little ploy. Stuck with an uppity mistress, Celia (Polly Walker), who is upsetting the others in the harem, he decides to kill two birds with one stone: He orders Merivel to marry her (but in name only, if you know what I mean, and I think you do) and cynically knights Merivel as pretense to settling the two of them downriver. Merivel then makes a bad career move: He falls in love with Lady Celia.
Thus, like Adam, he is expelled from Eden. Here the movie builds to its one deep idiocy. It is necessary for Merivel to rebuild his character through true love, fair enough; but when he goes to labor in a Quaker lunatic asylum, it is too much that as the camera prowls from the carbuncular, ruined face of one drooling howler after another, it suddenly stops apace at the unbearably cute mug of Meg Ryan, American movie star with nose of pixie perfection, eyes of Windex-blue and teeth so white you could serve asparagus to the president on them.
Ryan tries hard, but she's a little at sea, and this whole aspect is too sentimentalized. She can't drool or howl, so her symptom of madness is a funny walk of the sort John Cleese used to do on "Monty Python." Not good.
But when it ends this necessary irritation, "Restoration" once again becomes powerful.
Merivel returns to London just in time to catch the Great Plague in the mouth. In a season of dying, he becomes a hero; his compassion restored by love, he is fearless in combat with the germs he is beginning to suspect exist. Of course, being an entertainment as well as an meditation on the soul, "Restoration" comes up with a couple of oh-so-neat twists at the end that are, perhaps, a bit too neat. This isn't penmanship; neatness doesn't count for much.
It's still a lucid, passionate and deeply impressive work.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Sam Neill and Meg Ryan
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Released by Miramax
Rated R (nudity, sex, gore)
Sun score: ***