Movies teach us the power of love. Reality, quickly and without apology, demonstrates its limitations. Rarely does a film show us the flipside, but I Capture the Castle is that special exception.
Based on Dodie Smith's novel, I Capture the Castle gives us a 17-year-old named Cassandra (Romola Garai), who spends most of her time writing in her journal. There is plenty of material around her. At the height of his literary fame, her father (Bill Nighy) bought an isolated castle on the English countryside. Twelve years later, circa mid-1930s, he hasn't written anything more than a laundry list and looks like a fine candidate for a straitjacket. As his creativity crumbles, so does his family, while the castle remains dank, dark, and home to quite a few rats.
His second wife, artist and free spirit Topaz (mid-'90s indie princess Tara Fitzgerald), sees her life and creativity wilting away. His other daughter, Rose (Rose Byrne), a beautiful young woman, longs to escape at any cost. Cassandra, bookish and quietly pretty, remains unaffected. That doesn't last for long. The castle's property owner dies, bringing two rich American brothers, Simon and Neil (Henry Thomas and Marc Blucas) into the family's life. Almost immediately, Rose sees Simon as her meal ticket ("I'd marry a chimpanzee if it had money"), and enlists Cassandra's help.
The movie's first half wraps us snugly in light comedy and romantic situations to great effect. Shuffling between Simon and Neil's lush life -- which reminds me of a scaled-down version of The Great Gatsby -- and the quaint castle helps in creating that spell. Then, Rose asks Neil to shave his mustache before they kiss.
With that act -- and the proposal that follows it -- Cassandra slowly awakens to the world around her. From Rose, her parents, and on her own, she gets a crash course in all the good and bad love has to offer. The audience gets another movie that smashes the fairy tale mystique with eloquent, intricate, and painful blows. Not only can Cassandra not control her reality, her fantasies are incomplete. She has trouble imagining herself in a starring role, despite two men lusting after her, Simon and a chiseled local boy, Stephen (Henry Cavill).
You don't dive into love, you wade in slowly and hold your breath, the movie says. For demonstrating that lesson, director Tim Fywell and writer Heidi Thomas deserve a heap of praise, but they really earn it by weaving it into the movie so adroitly. Your concentration never breaks, which allows you to grow with Cassandra's character. If Garai doesn't nail the performance, the movie comes across as an unbearable mishmash of folksy comedy and melodrama. But her emotional transition from scene to scene is seamless, even while her character straddles the line between childhood and adulthood.
The rest of the actors give reliable performances, especially Thomas and Blucas, who play their roles with earnest, laid-back confidence. It's nice to see Blucas in a movie that he can actually mention in public. No one should have to rely on the dreadful Summer Catch and They as a way to get gigs. Byrne is also good as the desperate girl who tries to will love to happen, while Fitzgerald conjures her inner Stevie Nicks to play the free-spirited Topaz. Nighy is solid as the castle's patriarch, a man who uses his eccentricities to avoid living up to his past literary brilliance.
It's hard to find a flaw, though a lot of action gets crammed into the second half. You know what? That doesn't bother me. The movie stays with you in numerous little ways -- the midnight swims at the moat, Garai's probing eyes, the forest scenery that's out of an oil painting. I Capture the Castle tells romantic truths in a beautiful and indelible way, traits that come along far too infrequently.
She captures the tub.