I admit a hidden passion for the depictions of this age and the language used by the people of the period. I first read the opulent novel by Rose Tremain in the form of its movie tie-in edition. It is language that you can devour with glorious passages like:
“I am fond of Bathurst. His claret is excellent, and his table manners worse than mine. His conversation is pure drivel, but spoken with a perpetual passion, emphasised by his constant farting and thumping of the table.”
Sad it is, and I will spoil it for you here, Lord Bathurst does not survive the adaptation. But, take heart. This is a period film with a fart joke in it.
Robert Downey Jr. gives another silently beautiful performance as Robert Merivel, the son of a glove-maker, a talented physician. He and his friend John Pearce (played by the always dependable David Thewlis) work at the local hospital where the sick flock to in droves; so much so that as it is uttered in Merivel’s dialogue (and I’m paraphrasing here) “there isn’t enough time to eat, there isn’t enough time to sleep, and there is barely enough time for us to look after our patients.”
After an extraordinary event where Merivel and Pearce are brought in to examine a man whose beating heart is exposed, save for a plate which he straps to his chest to cover it, he catches the eye of the visiting King Charles II (portrayed exultantly by Sam Neill). Merivel his hence plucked out his gloomy existence and is given a place at court after curing the King’s sick spaniel.
Oh what bliss, a life of sophisticated debauchery and decadence, all Merivel need do is at every moment please the King, care for the royal dogs, and make people laugh via his ability to fart at will. (told you, fart joke)
Things however, such as they are often disposed to do, take on an degree of complication when the King decides to offer Merivel up as a husband (in name only) to his mistress Lady Celia Clemence (Polly Walker). He is given a splendid wedding party, a knighthood and an agreeable estate in Suffolk. The King’s plan is to hide his mistress as Merivel’s wife and commands him only to not, in any way, shape or form, fall in love with her.
So leaving his new wife in the King’s bed, Merivel takes to the river and to his new home. Here he meets and becomes close friends with his steward Will Gates (a grand little performance by Ian McKellen). Merviel sets about making something of the house and takes also to drinking and entertaining until that is, his wife comes to the house. Celia, it turns out, has been temporarily banished from court for being too forward with his majesty. She is commanded to wait for return of the King’s favour, during which time she is to have her portrait painted by one Elias Finn (a deviously stuffy performance by Hugh Grant). Everything is going swimmingly but then love, O forbidden love rears its head. The one thing prohibited of the newly knighted Merivel sees him cast out of paradise.
Grudgingly the wheel turns and Robert takes to his horse, off to find his friend Pearce who has found his peace in Quakerism and a job at country mad house. Merivel lost and dismayed begins to rediscover his gifts as a physician and also becomes intrigued with the case of self-inflicted insomnia and she that is haunted by it, a young Irish woman named Katharine (an actorly turn by Meg Ryan). Thus life continues for a time and Merivel introduces alternative methods of healing such as the joy of music. This is not automatically welcomed by the Quakers but soon their elder Ambrose (Ian McDiarmid) begins to warm to these notions. But just as all seems harmonious the dark clouds gather and Merivel’s long-time friend Pearce is taken, try though he does to heal him.
The journeyman Sir Robert (Merivel) leaves the Quakers, taking Katharine with him: as she is carrying his child.
After a whimsical journey back to London, Merivel takes up his work again in the hospital under the guise of his deceased friend Pearce. He has arrived at the heart of darkness, the black plague is running rampant in the streets and the sick and the well are quarantined together. Merivel works tirelessly until he is marked again by tragedy. He loses Katharine whilst delivering his own daughter Margaret.
Little time passes and his reputation garnered for his work in the hospital sees him again summoned to court. Lady Celia is feared to have been struck by the plague. As John Pearce, Merivel examines her and finds that she is in the clear. Leaving the name of his friend as the man to whom the lady, his former wife, is indebted.
On his way back from the royal summoning, Merivel is just in time to witness the great fire of London. He rushes carelessly, with no fear for his own life, into the blaze in search of his daughter. The burning ruin that was his lodgings gives way and he tumbles into the Thames. The broken Merivel is carried in a small boat away from the fire and back into fate’s waiting hands.
When he awakes Sir Robert finds that he has returned to his former estate and is in the company again of his former steward Will Gates. Gates is not far into the explanation of Merivel’s unexpected arrival when another occurs hard upon it. The corridor is flooded by the royal dogs flowed by courtiers and finally the King himself. He explains that a nurse-maid came to the court looking for her master and father to the baby she is carrying, the physician Robert Merivel.
O for joy and happy endings, Robert has at last come full circle and is restored. His daughter is reunited with him, his title and house returned to him by the King, he wandered the path long and winding and has suffered and been blessed by the hands of fate.
This is a largely overlooked gem of a film that not only boasts a wonderful cast but has extraordinary work behind the camera. It is helmed handsomely by Michael Hoffman ( Gambit/ The last Station) and superbly adapted for the screen by Rupert Walters (Some Girls/True Blue). The look of the film garnered it an Oscar for Eugenio Zanetti’s (Flatliners/The Last Action Hero) sumptuous production design and it is stunningly captured by the eye of Oliver Stapleton (The Grifters/Accidental Hero). The film’s final architect is the hands of the skilled editor Garth Craven who has cut everything from Bloody Sam’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid to My Best Friend’s Wedding.
I find it hard I’ll admit to sugar-coat films I think are passable to mediocre. I also find it difficult not to gush or spew hyperbole about the films that I love. Still I have endeavoured to keep this one coming to you neat and off a measured tongue. But, don’t I beg you, take my word for it. Find this film and enjoy a story which is one that we can all identify with; a story about how we all go on journeys; about how we seize days and regret deeds. It’s about winning and losing and finding your way even in the midst of hopelessness. We are all travellers and are travelling still. Take a chance on this, I pray thee.