Director: Michael Hoffman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is an entry in the Self-Involvement Blog-a-Thon hosted by Culture Snob.
In 1995, I was a few months separated from my first husband, living with my mother in my childhood home, sleeping in my childhood room, and completely broken and lost. I had already quit my job, unable to carry the responsibilities my boss had in mind—publishing two magazines instead of our current one without adding staff to our two-person operation—and freelancing a bit and working a part-time job at a local YMCA. I needed to be around children, think about life renewing itself, instead of feeling less than dead. I wasn’t yet a film buff, I wasn’t blogging. Hell, I’m not sure there were blogs yet. I wasn’t sure of anything. I was turned inward, wondering if I’d ever return.
At the time, the Morton Grove Theatre, a small movie house literally yards away from my mother’s home, was still in operation. It had gone from the first-run house I frequented in the early 70s, to a second-run, cut-rate house. The day I went to see Restoration wasn’t much different from others; I’d spent an extremely undemanding day at the Y and then gone for my usual mega-lap swim. Exercise was my main release back then, which was a great relief to my mother, who feared I’d turn to the bottle for escape.
It felt good to sit alone in the dark. It was something I used to do a lot as a kid. I used to lose myself in my dreams. Now, I’d lose myself in someone else’s dream. Seemed appropriate, because I’d just done that for the past seven years, trying to be someone I wasn’t to please my mate. I didn’t know who I was. Maybe Restoration could tell me.
The story takes place in the 17th century, during the reign of Charles II of England, a restoration of the monarchy after the overthrow of Oliver Cromwell. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Robert Merivel, a gifted physician who comes to the notice of the king when he is observed reaching into the chest of a man who walks around with a metal plate covering a hole and holds the man’s beating heart in his hand. Merivel’s lack of superstition about the human heart fits perfectly with Charles’ (Sam Neill) Enlightenment attitudes. The king summons Merivel to his castle, shows him his models and contraptions, and then engages him as a royal physician—for his dogs. Robert, though loathing the assignment, feels he cannot say no. Soon, he becomes another one of the court wastrels, indulging in the decadence that has come back with a vengeance after the previous 11 years of Puritan severity under Cromwell.
Charles has a beautiful mistress at court, Celia Clemence (Polly Walker), which is beginning to vex the queen. He decides to marry her off to Robert to make her seem safe, and then carry on his affair in a less conspicuous manner. Robert does the unthinkable—he falls in love with Celia. In a poignant scene, the newly married couple repairs to their marriage bed, with Robert clumsily clad only in a feather-festooned cap covering his genitals. Robert blindly hopes they are to consummate their marriage, only to watch Charles take his place beside Celia, thank Robert for his service to the crown, and laughingly embrace the bride. Robert’s sad, humiliated face tells all.
Robert leaves the king’s service and wanders in a daze. He eventually meets a woman named Catharine (Meg Ryan) at an insane asylum where he finds employment and takes her as a lover. She has a peculiar habit of walking in a circle in the courtyard using wide, heavy steps. She calls it the “leaving step.” “Every man on earth has his leaving step. If my husband had been a small man, he would not have been able to leave me. But he was a large man, and stepped over me as I slept, one great stride,” she explains. Catharine becomes pregnant and listens to hear Robert’s leaving step. But he doesn’t go. He takes her to London where he intends for them to become a family. Unfortunately, when Catharine’s time comes, her baby is breech. Robert must perform a C-section to save the baby, but he tells Catharine that she will die. She accepts her fate and asks only that Robert care for the baby and name it Margaret if it is a girl.
Robert mourns Catharine, but becomes a restored man in fathering Margaret. The 1666 Great Fire of London engulfs Robert’s home, and he risks everything to save Margaret. He can’t lose himself again, now that he has rediscovered his gift as a doctor and removed the steel plate from before his own heart and felt what it is to love.
I had no real idea what Restoration was about when I went to see it. I only knew that Robert Downey, Jr. was in it and that I felt a kinship with his troubled soul. I cried as though I would never cry again, feeling so much the hurt of thinking I loved someone who ended up only using me, of giving up on my own being and gifts to rest in an institution to which I rushed in panic at being 30 and unwed. I cried because I tried to please someone who never would have been pleased with me, and experienced his leaving step. I hadn’t yet been restored to myself—that would take 10 years of hard work—and was terrified that once I got there, I would lose it all again. But I saw that there was a road ahead, that I might not always feel empty and bereft, and that my gift—writing—might yet pull me through.
I walked home, went up to my small, safe, childhood room, wiped my eyes, and put on some audiotapes a kind soul had given me to help me understand divorce and recovery. I can honestly say that this heartfelt, well-crafted, visually stunning movie with sincere performances all around changed my life by giving me a mirror onto my own experience and, along with it, hope.