After this summer's slew of feeble female-empowerment movies, at last we get a girl's coming-of-age picture with some flesh and imagination. (Hence, I suppose, the R rating.) I Capture the Castle, set mostly in a leased, decrepit Suffolk castle in 1934, is screwball farce, romance, domestic tragicomedy and literary frolic rolled into one.
The blend befits the exploding consciousness of the 17-year-old narrator, Cassandra (Romola Garai). This resourceful, blooming young woman sparks a courtship between her beautiful sister (Rose Byrne) and the castle's young and rich American landlord (Henry Thomas) in order to save her home and the sanity of her novelist father (Bill Nighy), afflicted for a dozen years with writer's block.
The title registers with full force as a chess pun: Cassandra's every move provokes a flurry of counter-moves all across the board. Thomas' blunt, jaded mother (Sinead Cusack) competes with Nighy's second wife (Tara Fitzgerald), a flamboyant artist's model, to become his muse; Thomas stirs Cassandra's own amorous yearnings, while his brother (Marc Blucas) wrestles with his feelings for her sister. The good-looking, virtuous swain (Henry Cavill) who adores Cassandra and serves as the castle's caretaker gets his heart broken - and his career made as a '30s media heartthrob.
The action unfolds in a variety of pastoral or chivalric or Art Deco set pieces: a chilly nocturnal swim in the castle moat; a solitary enactment of midsummer rites that turns erotically fateful; a quick tour of pre-war London high society in all its free-spending splendor. The main source of the movie's strength is the inspired novel of the same name by Dodie Smith (the author of the original book The Hundred and One Dalmatians).
Heidi Thomas' adaptation and Tim Fywell's direction, though clever and intelligent throughout, don't quite keep this peculiar, delightful engine hitting on all cylinders.
But the filmmakers don't simplify the denouement, rarely descend to sentimentality, and allow most of the actors enough room to be mad, seductive and sensitive - notably Garai, who never lets Cassandra go soft. Plus, as a special added attraction for arthouse-goers, this movie's depiction of two different kinds of literary process - Cassandra's and her father's - makes the wildly overrated Swimming Pool look all wet.
I Capture the Castle
Starring Romola Garai, Tara Fitzgerald and Henry Thomas
Directed by Tim Fywell
Released by IDP
Time: 113 minutes
Sun Score * * * 1/2