Welcome to the none-too-subtly-named Mortmain family, wherein foundering patriarch James (Bill Nighy) -- for all symbolic definitions a dead writer -- has been allowing his prolonged delusions of literary grandeur to destroy his family's last shreds of hope and sober accountability. Rose, his eldest and shallowest, desperately seeks to escape his pretense and poverty by proffering herself to rich young American Simon Cotton (Henry Thomas). Simon and his brash brother, Neil (Marc Blucas), abruptly claim inheritance of the dilapidated castle where the Mortmains have been watching good fortune dwindle for the 12 long years since James last wrote anything of consequence. Mix in the boys' prissy mother (Sinead Cusack) and their decidedly predatory in-law Leda (Sarah Woodward) and propriety hits the fan. The ensuing interactions are funny, sad, moving, and above all astute, making I Capture the Castle a fabulous film. Even the cars are tasty.
Based on the first novel by late British playwright and author Dodie Smith (The Hundred and One Dalmatians), this 1930s British romance is narrated by the middle child, Cassandra (Romola Garai), whose fervid journal entries at the fresh age of 17 allow us a perspective that's at once vulnerable and tenacious. Contending with the deceptively "prettier" Rose, her father, her stunning-if-thick stepmom Topaz (Sirens' Tara Fitzgerald), and her younger brother, Thomas (Joe Sowerbutts -- yes, really), has made Cassandra complex indeed. As childhood gradually wafts away and she discovers mysterious new feelings for both Simon and handsome family helper Stephen (Henry Cavill), love, money, inspiration, and dedication are explored with great warmth and wit.
Without viewing even a single frame, you can discern a transatlantic cultural disparity: In England and elsewhere, this mild and totally family-appropriate movie earned a PG rating; here in the States, Tara Fitzgerald's brief, silly, harmless and completely nonsexual nudity earned the project an R. Now who's uptight?
Well, fortunately, all the characters here are uptight in the most enjoyable ways. This is a story that's seriously concerned with facial hair and society's relief at its removal, with closeted jealousy toward successful writers, and especially with who is kissing whom, and why, and what exactly it means.
Garai is a breath of fresh air in her first starring role . She and Byrne even manage to survive a disconcertingly twee scene in which they inherit tatty fur coats and are mistaken for escaped circus bears. And not enough nice things can be said about Thomas; despite having debuted in that Spielberg movie about the stupid rubber puppet from space, he has matured into a nuanced and intelligent actor.
Everybody here gets delicious bits of business -- it's a hoot when standoffishly bohemian painter-model Topaz helpfully explains that her latest canvas, War and Peace, is "based on the novel" -- yet ultimately, it's all about Cassandra. Given that her foibles primarily involve young love, sibling rivalry, confusing suitors, and a fallen father figure, it's a shocker that this book hasn't been adapted to the screen before this. The gala of London shopping, pagan fire rituals, cute boys meandering through ancient halls in tuxedos, razor-sharp dinner-party wit, familial retribution -- it's as if movie producers have been blind. But fortunately, the adaptation has arrived in its own good time, and it is suitably captivating.