The title has several meanings; yes, this is a period piece, set in the 17th century, at the time of the restoration, and King Charles II (Sam Neill) is back on the English throne and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism is on the retreat. But this is a story of a personal restoration, that of Robert Merivel (Robert Downey Jr), a young medical student who is enlisted by the king to take care of his ailing dog. Merivel excels, and the King sees him as a cure-all for a number of personal maladies, not least, a romantic life that requires some unravelling. Merivel plays along, but it’s soon obvious that the King uses and abuses those he enlists, and Restoration’s action moves away from the royal court to a Quaker sanatorium, where Merivel falls for Katherine (Meg Ryan).
Rose Tremain’s novel is, inevitably, given something of a truncated treatment by Michael Hoffman’s film, which does a stunning job in terms of costumes and sets, but bites off more than anyone could chew in terms of her characters and plot. Nevertheless, Restoration is still a good deal smarter than most period films, taking a picaresque journey with Merivel as he falls out of favour with the King, but discovers a richer kind of lifestyle than he ever imagined.
Robert Downey Jr was always a natural performer, and does a great job in conveying Merivel’s youthful arrogance; he’s aided by a strong cast including David Thewlis as a fellow medic, Ian McKellen as his sidekick, and Hugh Grant as a rather pompous painter who Merivel has genuine contempt for. In fact, there’s a spikey-ness to all the characterisations that makes Restoration something of a pleasure; Restoration may not match up with Tremain’s book, but the observation of the corrupt world around Downey Jr’s character is refreshingly bitter.
Restoration won Oscars for set and costume design, but it’s no slouch when it comes to acting or plot. With a great cast, many of whom would go onto become household names, it’s an accessible period film that deserves to be exhumed; while not perfect, it restores the parts that other period dramas simply can’t reach.