You can't choose who you fall in love with.
I Capture the Castle is a warm and very sweet little coming-of-age fable that, despite some winning performances and an all-around good heart, never quite charms quite as much as it wants to. There are moments contained in this film so beautiful that they'll literally take your breath away, and yet they're compounded by moments as emotionally hollow as a kickball. It's often engaging and never boring, but when all is said and done, I just can't shake the feeling that with a little more fine-tuning, it could have been something more.
Facts of the Case
The story, set in 1930s England, details the first romantic experiences of Cassandra Mortmain, a precocious 17-year-old living with her family in a decaying castle in the English countryside. We are told in an opening flashback that the family came to live here in happier times, when their father (Bill Nighy) was a successful writer and their mother still alive. Years later, the mother has died and the father's creative well has run dry, taking with it the Mortmains' income.
Unable to pay the rent on the castle and struggling to scrape together the money for a decent meal, things are looking grim until the arrival of the Cottons, a wealthy American family who take over the property after the owner's death. Rose (Rose Byrne), Cassandra's older sister, sees this as an opportunity to finally marry into money, choosing the Cottons' oldest son, Simon (Henry Thomas—yes, that Henry Thomas), as the object of her affections. Her initial attempts at wooing him are pathetically inadequate, as years of being pent-up in the castle have left her romantic skills wanting. But Simon soon becomes enamored with her free spirit, much to the chagrin of his brother Neil (Marc Blucas—yes, that Marc Blucas) and the two become engaged despite the fact that she doesn't love him. This enrages Cassandra, who soon finds herself falling for Simon, setting up a romantic entanglement that teaches Cassandra her first valuable lessons in love and heartbreak, and forces her to grow up in ways she never expected.
I really wanted to love I Capture the Castle, and there were sections of it where I almost found myself doing so despite my reservations about certain story elements and occasionally clunky dialogue. The setup, based on a novel by Dodie Smith, is a perfectly adequate coming-of-age scenario, and it's boosted enormously by the earnestness of its leading lady, Romola Garai. But it's also encumbered by niggling flaws that chip away at the artifice until they become impossible to overlook. If the director, Tim Fywell, had paid a bit better attention to wringing the maximum effect out of the key emotional scenes, the film may have turned out to be one of the best of 2003. As it is, too many moments just fall flat when they should tug at the heartstrings, turning this potentially great love story into a merely good one.
There are certain elements of the film that simply don't work. One of these is the mystery surrounding the death of Cassandra's mother, in which her father's involvement in her death is called into question early on but never really explored. The whole subplot feels extraneous and even somewhat silly, and the payoff is a bit of a ploy used to highlight her father's psychological instability and inability to write for twelve years following his previous success. It's an element that I assume was lifted straight from the book, but onscreen it feels false and might have been better off having been left out entirely.
Another element that feels kind of tacked on is the relationship between Cassandra and her childhood friend Stephen (Henry Cavill), a good-looking young man who develops romantic feelings for her. There's some silly business of him becoming a model that feels very out-of-left-field, and his character seems to exist only to add further romantic complications to Cassandra's developing feelings for Simon. I understood the purpose for having someone in the story who genuinely loves Cassandra, but it's almost too much, as if the writer didn't feel like the major love triangle (or quadrangle) was enough, so she had to throw in this extra character to complicate things more. Again, Stephen's presence in the story is an element that may have worked in the book, but it doesn't work onscreen.
Neither of these flaws is big enough, however, to distract us from the film's major problem, which is that the American brothers aren't all that charming or worth caring about. Thomas and Blucas throw everything they've got into playing these wealthy Yanks, but they're uncomfortable with the 1930s setting, and oftentimes feel like they're straining to acquit themselves to their surroundings. Riley—err, Blucas gets away with this a bit more easily than Thomas, and at one point his character even admits that he doesn't belong among the more proper English trappings. But there are moments in which we're supposed to feel sympathetic for Thomas' Simon because of his engagement to a woman who doesn't love him, and for Cassandra, because she does. Unfortunately, because he's often so rigid, and seems more like an actor playing a part than the character he's supposed to be playing, the effect just doesn't carry the dramatic weight it should. Had Thomas been a bit more relaxed in the role, it would have done wonders to draw us into the romantic entanglement, but as it is, he's just too much of a cipher for us to care.
It's a shame, too, because there are some really wonderful things in this movie, not least of which is the gorgeous scenery, shot lovingly by Richard Greatrex, which is so awe-inspiring that it had me wishing that the story around it had been more captivating. The rest of the cast beyond Blucas and Thomas is uniformly excellent, especially Bill Nighy (currently winning raves for his scene-stealing performance in Love, Actually) and Rose Byrne, who creates a three-dimensional portrait out of a character who might otherwise come off as one-note (greedy, money-grubbing, etcetera). While I have no problem recommending I Capture the Castle to teenage girls, its primary target audience, or anyone who enjoys this sort of romantic melodrama, I only wish the film's strongest elements, of which there are many, had added up to a more satisfying whole.
Despite only achieving modest success in its theatrical run, Columbia's DVD of I Capture the Castle is a well-produced package that fans of the film will most certainly be pleased with. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is really a sight to behold, with very little haloing present, and it beautifully captures the film's magnificent visuals. The disc also includes a full-frame transfer for those who like their movies with the sides chopped off, but when the movie in question looks this good, why wouldn't you want to see every inch of what was filmed?
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, and while it's not going to sell anyone on the merits of surround sound, the track does serve to highlight the lovely, haunting score by Dario Marianelli, certainly one of the film's best facets. English subtitles are included for the hearing-impaired.
The extras begin with a screen-specific audio commentary that includes director Fywell, writer Heidi Thomas, and producer David Parfitt. It's a friendly and very relaxed track, and the three create a nice rapport as they spend most of the time relating production anecdotes and information rather than describing what's actually happening onscreen. Thomas, in particular, describes a number of difficulties in adapting the beloved source material, such as beginning the film with a flashback sequence that supposedly doesn't occur until much later in the book.
Next up is a five-minute interview with actress Romola Garai. It's mostly just fluff, as the actress relates how wonderful it was to work with each member of the cast and crew, but worth checking out if only to see how radiant the real-life Garai is in comparison to her waifish character. Rounding out the disc are five deleted scenes, none of which are anything to write home about (except for maybe the alternate ending, which was wisely discarded in favor of the one used in the film). Also included is the film's theatrical trailer, as well as trailers for a number of recent Columbia releases.
Despite my reservations about certain story elements and casting choices, I Capture the Castle is a sweetly romantic little coming-of-age tale that should delight its target audience. The film's R rating is absolutely laughable, as the "brief nudity" that earned the movie the label is non-sexual and not even remotely offensive, proving once again just how out-of-touch the current MPAA regime still is. Concerned parents who happen across the movie in the video store would do well to just ignore the rating and at least consider renting the film, which is perfectly suitable for young girls and, really, anyone considering themselves fans of decent romantic melodrama.
Not guilty on all counts. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Filmmakers' Commentary
Review content copyright © 2004 Mark Van Hook; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.