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THE KING AND HIS COURTESANS

The shenanigans of Charles, Di and Fergie may intrigue the tabloid-TV crowd, but the present British royals are simply no match for their misbehaving forebears. You don't even need to crack a history book to see the difference: Filmmakers have recently given us satisfying new interpretations of George III's lunacy and Richard III's ruthlessness, and it's only a matter of time until moviedom's favorite monarch, the inconstant husband Henry VIII, makes another appearance.

Meanwhile, another bold new film, Michael Hoffman's Restoration, builds a pretty good case for King Charles II as the all-time champion in two additional Buckingham Palace specialties--lust and decadence. In the 1660s this randy Chuck trolled the London theater district with the vigor of a Warren Beatty, and he never went home alone. Of course, it always helps to be the guy in charge: When you weary of a bedmate, you can simply chop her head off, or you can ship her off to the country house in the company of one of your court jesters.

This is what Sam Neill's dandified Charles II does in Restoration, and it is what propels this smart, bawdy film's main action. But Hoffman (Soapdish) is less interested in painting a portrait of the "Merry King" than in surveying his effects: In league with writer Rupert Waters (who uses a 1989 novel by Rose Tremain), he mainly charts the progress of the jester, a dissolute young physician named Robert Merivel, played by quirky Robert Downey Jr. Charles makes Merivel what he is, but Merivel comes to typify the age.

For those who've forgotten, the Restoration was the period following the tyrant Oliver Cromwell's death and the ouster of his son, when the Stuarts returned to the throne in the person of Charles II. Fed up with Puritan austerity, the newly crowned king made 1660 quite a year for licentiousness and frivolity, imitating the loose manners of the French court with abandon. In touch with that spirit, director Hoffman sets bevies of painted harlots adrift on golden barges, stages palace orgies worthy of the declining Greeks and shows us a lounging king more concerned with the health of his pet spaniel than with the welfare of his subjects.

Into this teeming party stumbles young Merivel, who has an obvious instinct for medicine, even in a time of rampant quackery. But he's more interested in whoring than in healing (he's hocked his instruments), and even before Charles spots him, he's a carousing fool, the perfect dupe for a king's pleasure.

If Restoration went only that far, it would be quite a lark. But the filmmakers understand that the 1660s in England were more than a cup of wine and a roll in the hay. While indulging his libertine habits, Charles also fostered advances in architecture, the sciences, literature and philosophy. This was the time of Christopher Wren, of Congreve and Dryden, when visionary urban planning came to the fore and verse satire blossomed. The film throws its supercilious hero into that world, too. After his country misadventure with the king's discarded mistress (Polly Walker) and a foppish court painter (rouged Hugh Grant, with marcelled curls hanging to his waist), a chastened Merivel is cast back out into the untidy real world--where he eventually redeems an abused Irishwoman (Meg Ryan) with some pioneering psychotherapy and reclaims his own best gift when calamity strikes in the forms of the Great Plague (1665) and the fire of London (1666). All along, his solemn friend Pearce (David Thewlis) has served as his conscience: Now Merivel acts on its command.

Thus does the creature of his age restore himself, too. Downey performs with unflagging high spirits, and this handsomely packaged history lesson is a great pleasure to watch--from the moment its young picaro literally touches the beating heart of a beggar whose chest has been smashed, to the empty dalliances of the royals, to a game of three-card monte perpetrated by highwaymen. Director of photography Oliver Stapleton also captures stacks of pale corpses piled high on a foggy wharf and the old city aflame--reinventing images often seen in films past. In the end, Restoration is nothing less than the moral adventure of an entire era--witty and lavish, complete with warts.

That it was made by an American makes it all the more astonishing. Michael Hoffman got to Oxford (on a Rhodes scholarship) by way of Boise State. There he immersed himself in English drama and even featured young Hugh Grant in his first undergraduate comedy. Restoration is a far more ambitious piece of work, of course, and one that serves to remind us that the comedy of manners also burst into bloom in the age of Charles II. If we can judge by this extraordinary film, it's still going strong more than 300 years later--despite absurd reductions in the spirit of monarchs.

 
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