If Jane Austen’s protagonists lived in a world of embroidered silk, spinning graceful webs to catch spouses in a rigid system of behavior and class, then the heroines of “I Capture the Castle” inhabit a place as charmingly eccentric as their green-dyed dresses, finding love with humor and idiosyncratic flair. This movie is a lovely coming-of-age story as rough as ripped stockings and possessing all the charm of an eccentric tea cozy. While some of the characters are thinly acted and fans of the book will feel this adaptation is wanting, the film succeeds overall due to its engaging narrator.
The movie closely follows Dodie Smith’s book, which was first released in 1948, but which takes place in 1936 during the hopeful pause between two wars. [On a side note, savvy readers might recognize Smith as the author of 101 Dalmatians.] “I Capture the Castle” was unavailable to American audiences for decades during which time old copies circulated widely with its popularity driven by word of mouth alone. Bouncing back and forth over the hurdle of maturity, the delightful Cassandra Mortain is the 17-year-old diarist who takes it upon herself to describe in endearing detail her family, their decreasingly genteel poverty, their brushes with love and, of course, their rented castle.
Cassandra (played superbly by Romola Garai) neatly transcribes the very unromantic aspects of living in a decrepit castle with not enough to eat. Distracted and caustic, her father James Mortmain (Bill Nighy), is the author of a brilliant book twelve years before who cannot find a way to start writing again but instead locks himself away to read murder mysteries while the family protects him by selling off the furniture. Cassandra’s stepmother is the practical but ethereal and free-spirited Topaz (Tara FitzGerald, clearly enjoying herself) who believes her gift is to be a muse and who routinely takes herself out of her cares by going naked into the night.
While Mortmain locks himself in the castle’s equivalent of the attic, the men of the house are younger brother Thomas (Joe Sowerbutts), who is still in school and the loyal Stephen (Henry Cavill) who remains as a servant although he has not been paid in years. Cassandra’s beautiful and ambitious older sister, Rose (Rose Byrne) was weaned on the stories of Jane Austen/the Bronte sisters and longs to escape to a world of peach colored towels and silk stockings by marrying money, which seems a highly unlikely prospect until the property’s new owners arrive.
Once the two American grandsons of the castle’s owner come back to inherit the place and its much grander neighbor, Scoatney Hall, the Mortmain family are turned upside down as the sisters fall for the brothers in a scramble, in Rose’s case, tainted by the allure of wealth. Older brother Simon (E.T.’s protagonist grown older and weedier, Henry Thomas) and Anglophobic Neil (Buffy the Vampire Slayers’ ex-boyfriend, Marc Blucas) discover the Mortmains with a mixture of awe and fear, but are quickly enamored of their quirky charms. This story does not have any “brick wall happy” endings but it is a fresh reminder of the tart taste of first love and the disarming sweetness of becoming an adult.
For those who have read the book the two-dimensionality and casting of supporting characters likely will be a disappointment. This factor is especially true for Neil, who looses his humor and gentleness in the translation to celluloid; for Thomas (Rose and Cassandra’s brother) who has become younger, less interesting and Harry Potter-esque in his looks although not his charm; and, for the much anthropomorphized pets Abelard and Heloise. The movie is still too book-bound and static, losing the subtlety of the words on the page without using film to fill it in.
Parents should know that there are mature themes to this coming of age movie. One character clearly intends to marry for money and lies about her motives. Extramarital affairs are implied in several situations. Two characters, Topaz in particular, “embrace the elements” by being nude in nature as a way of relaxing. The scenes where Mortmain loses his temper might be frightening to younger viewers, especially when he turns his anger towards his daughter.
Families might wish to discuss the issues of gender and class as they are depicted in the movie. What is Stephen’s role in the family? Why does Cassandra’s father tell her to be “brisk” with Stephen? What do the different women see as their role, and why do at least two of them seem to want to inspire art rather than create it? Why might someone in Rose’s position feel that her only option to succeed in life would be to marry someone wealthy? What would you have done if you were living in the castle in those times under those circumstances? Think about what actions Cassandra make that can be described as more “mature” and others that are more “childish;” what are the differences?
In the book, Smith makes frequent allusions to Austen/Bronte and how they influenced the Mortmain sisters. Families might enjoy discussing the differences and similarities between the Jane Austen protagonists of the early 1800’s and the Mortmain sisters in 1936.
For families who enjoyed this movie, Cold Comfort Farm is another tongue-in-cheek look at the pull of a rural English family from the thrall of the Austen Era into the “Modern Times” of the 1930’s. Also, families might be interested in seeing Gosford Park, an extremely well acted mystery with themes for more mature teens. The book “I Capture the Castle” is also a treat.