Directed by Tim Fywell; produced by David Parfitt, Anant Singh and David M Thompson
In the mid-1930s, the Mortmain family is living in a half-ruined castle in Suffolk, existing on the ever-dwindling royalties from the best-seller the father (Bill Nighy) wrote more than a decade before. They are behind on the rent, rarely have meat for dinner, and don’t have a way out of their predicament. Then, the two American brothers (Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas) who own the castle – and seven thousand surrounding acres – arrive to inspect the property, and the two daughters of the family (Rose Byrne, Romola Garai) find their world about to change.
A not-quite-modern Jane Austen-style story, I Capture the Castle is all about relationships and the people involved in them. Everyone’s part is well-written; even characters the viewer thinks may be two-dimensional are given depth and purpose. The main character is the younger daughter, played by Garai in an excellent performance. She is the narrator, and gives the view-point. She is usually clear-sighted, and sees herself as the normal one of the family, but as the story progresses, she realises that emotions can change perceptions, and vice versa.
One review I read called the family ‘eccentric’. It isn’t, thank goodness. Too often, eccentricity in movies is created with a dreadful self-consciousness, as if the characters were the result of a brain-storming session following the writers’ question, ‘how can we make them quirky?’ The worst eccentricity is shown by the step-mother (Tara Fitzgerald) – quite the opposite of the usual wicked step-parent – who likes to strip naked in nature. Coming from a Bohemian background, however, and given what we learn of her fears, shedding her clothes becomes an understandable release. Her husband (Nighy) chose to live in a remote castle to overcome both his past and his stifling writer’s block. The elder daughter, played by Byrne, seems a gold-digger, but her desire to marry into wealth is based on desperation. She sees a rich husband not as her own salvation but her family’s. These are well-conceived characters, not misguided attempts to make memorable and irrelevant personalities.
The story comes from a 1948 novel by Dodie Smith, better known in some circles for her children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I’m surprised I Capture the Castle was not made into a cinematic feature before this, though it was produced for British television in the 1950s. The screenplay is smart, and, while not all loose ends are tied up in the finale, they weren’t meant to be, and the conclusion fits with the rest of the tale.
This is one of the few period movies I have seen that does not rely on music to give us a sense of time. There is one song that is characteristic of the era, but it is significant to the characters’ emotions, and not to the setting. As well, period films frequently cite important world events to put the story in a larger context. Again, this is eschewed in I Capture the Castle. Reference in a domestic drama to the remilitarization of the Rhineland, or even to the Great Depression would hardly have seemed natural. We are given a sense of time and place by the clothes worn, the automobiles driven, and the characters’ attitudes – unapologetically different from today’s.
While I Capture the Castle doesn’t have quite the tidiness of a Jane Austen story, there is much to compare the two. Garai’s Cassandra is very like an Austen heroine, observing family and friends, trying to make things better for others while finding her own way. There is a secluded feeling to the Mortmain’s world, one in which London is almost alien, and largely immaterial to their lives. And there is an innocence which, while tested, is never quite shattered.
The makers of I Capture the Castle knew what they wanted to do, and succeeded.