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Castle keepers
Director and cast capture a classic

Movies notoriously abuse writers, not just those who write the screenplays but those whose lives and art they try to dramatize on the screen. Recent attempts at the latter include the inane (Alex and Emma), the amorphous (Swimming Pool), and the awful (Cet amour-là). Even more ill-used by movies are teenagers — the examples here are too numerous and well-known to mention. So combining the two subjects in one film seems a guarantee of disaster.

Yet there was a time when both youth and art were respected, as can be seen in Dodie Smith’s delightful, witty, and moving 1948 novel I Capture the Castle. (She also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmatians.) And that respect is shared by first-time director Tim Fywell as he adapts her work to the screen with grace, fidelity, visual splendor, and impeccable performances. Capture consists of the diary of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain (Romola Garai), a latter-day Jane Austen (to whom she compares herself, as well as to the Brontës, with charming spunk and humility), though her genre seems at first more fairy tale than social comedy.

For starters, Cassandra lives in an actual castle in the economically parched but artistically vibrant England of the 1930s. Her father (Bill Nighy) is a famous writer; her wickedly beautiful stepmother, Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), is a free spirit who communes with nature in the nude; her sister, Rose (Rose Byrne), is a Rapunzel-like beauty; her real brother, Thomas (Joe Sowerbutts), is a Harry Potter look-alike; and her adopted "brother," poor orphaned Stephen (Henry Cavill), looks like "all the Greek gods rolled into one."

All they lack is money — Dad hasn’t written a thing in years — and appropriate suitors. Enter young Americans Simon (Henry Thomas) and Neil (Marc Blucas) Cotton, scions of the family who own the castle, and visiting Britain to check on their property. At this point the literary source changes from Austen to Henry James, adding a tale of innocent Americans seduced by decadent Europeans (or is it the reverse?) to the subtle and rigorous exploration of relationships, motivation, and point of view.

No easy feat for a 17-year-old, or for a film, either. Fywell is generous with voiceovers, of course, but as much as Smith’s vibrant prose it’s Gorai’s portrayal of Cassandra that brings the bookish waif to life in her metamorphosis from innocence to a kind of experience. Alternately earnest and wry, hoydenish and maidenly, Gorai’s heroine looks on with rueful fascination and comments irrepressibly as the seeming boon of the Americans’ arrival threatens their threadbare Camelot. Her limpid features and coltish body reflect her state of mind as eloquently and endearingly as her words.

The rest of the cast capture their characters with equal verve and authority. Nighy’s father is redolent of failure, ambition, vanity, sadness, and resignation, until his worn tweed carapace crackles with new life as the formidable Mrs. Cotton (Sinéad Cusack) strokes his confidence and perhaps his libido. Byrne’s Rose makes the transition from desperate and unformed beauty to calculating golddigger while remaining sympathetic and mysterious. Less complex but more endearing, Fitzgerald’s Topaz and Cavill’s Stephen hold fast to their basic natures in the face of change with a noble pathos and absurdity.

Castle has its weak points. A confrontation between Cassandra and her father could have been powerful and purgative but instead comes off as a standard cry-and-hug moment. And there’s a farcical episode in which Rose in a big fur coat is mistaken for a bear. In a way, though, the bear incident also demonstrates Fywell’s good sense and fidelity to the text, as the scene’s real significance is revealed outside Cassandra’s perception, and thus off screen.

This sensitivity to her point of view intensifies Cassandra’s presence and adds to the drama of her growth and disillusionment. So too do Fywell’s sets and cinematography. At first, the characters play out their little comedies in what seems a Pre-Raphaelite universe of moats and candlelight and tapestries inhabited by nymphs and knights and growing shadows. Then, as the focus shifts to the London-based Cottons and to the cold world of marriage and property, an Art Deco sensibility takes over — geometric, monochromatic, detached. The æsthetics mirror Cassandra’s initiation into wisdom. With her words, imagination, and intelligence, she does capture the castle, but it’s cold consolation for losing what she loves.

Issue Date: July 18 - 24, 2003
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