Film

I Capture the Castle (2003)

Tracy McLoone

The Cottons bluster into the Mortmains' lives, as Americans in British tales will do.


I Capture the Castle

Director: Tim Fywell
Cast: Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Bill Nighy, Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas, Tara FitzGerald
MPAA rating: R
Studio: IDP Films
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-07-18

"I love. I have loved. I will love." The words of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain (Romola Garai) suggest her ambitions over the spring and summer during which I Capture the Castle takes place. Indeed, I Capture the Castle is about the experience of Cassandra and those around her falling in love, trying to understand their feelings, and dealing with broken hearts.

But as much as this film is about love, it is also about the lust and yearning that come with it. I Capture the Castle is about desire as much as it is about love, and the film makes clear that they are easily confused. Desire is the yearning for something or someone, while love is a deeper emotional connection. As Cassandra tries to sort out these emotions, she ends up in conflicts several family members and friends.

Tim Fywell's movie tends to communicate these difficulties through facial expressions, especially Garai's: she can convey desire and repulsion, often simultaneously, and with only a glance. Fywell has apparently learned a great deal about close-ups from his years directing television movies and mini-series, primarily in Britain, such as A Dark Adapted Eye and Madame Bovary. He uses faces to show characters' internal states and can to move the plot along.

Based on a novel by Dodie Smith, the film follows the adventures of the Mortmain family, living in a dilapidated castle in Suffolk, England in the mid 1930s. The castle itself becomes something of a character, with moods depending on the weather and close-up shots of the castle showing as much emotion as any actor. In the rain, the castle is gloomy and seems hopeless, not a place anyone would want to live. In the summer sun or on a clear spring night, however, the castle turns charming and romantic.

Since they moved into the castle some years earlier, the family has lost their mother. Now, they feel stuck, with leaky roofs and drafty rooms. Cassandra's older sister Rose, a red-haired beauty, longs for romance, new clothes and a life outside the castle. Their father, James, published a critically acclaimed novel a dozen years ago, but hasn't written anything since and spends his time in a perpetual bad mood, reading detective stories while pretending to work on a new novel. Their young stepmother, Topaz (Tara FitzGerald), is a flamboyant artist's model who desires to be James's muse.

They all love the castle, but yearn for something more. The household muddles along trying to make the best of scant resources and depending heavily on the work of Stephen Colley (Henry Cavill), a handsome young man whom the Mortmains took in when his mother, their housekeeper, died. He now lives with them as a sort of servant and sort of family member (he hasn't been paid in years).

The Mortmain family comes head to head with the owners of the castle, an American family named the Cottons. They consist of the brothers Neil (Marc Blucas) and Simon (Henry Thomas), and their forthright mother (Sinead Cusack). While the Cottons are temporarily housed on their ancestral estate (the brothers' father was English) near the castle, the Mortmains hope to marry Rose off to one of the brothers, preferably Simon, since he is heir to the family fortune. James, in turn, is quite taken with Mrs. Cotton, inspiring Topaz's jealousy; she fears that instead the American will be James' inspiration to begin writing again.

This clever clash of families shows what happens what happens when two cultures collide, showing that as well as Americans and British having different ways of doing things, individual families are cultures in themselves, doing things that to outsiders might seem odd. It soon becomes apparent that the Mortmains' eccentricity is related to their poverty. One scene shows the family all dressed in green because they have dyed their old clothes, not to match, but to get more wear out of bedraggled clothing.

The Cottons bluster into their lives, as Americans in British tales will do, and begin to question the Mortmains, determining that Rose is a golddigger, calling Cassandra "consciously naïve," and interrogating James as to why he has not published anything since his famous novel -- something none of the Mortmains would ever dare do. Despite these differences, the Mortmains are enthralled by the Cottons' "Yankee" behavior and wealth, just as the Cottons are intrigued by the Mortmains' "Britishness" and genteel poverty.

After some careful planning by the Mortmain family to make Rose look as desirable as possible, Simon falls in love with Rose. Neil professes to dislike Rose, but seems attracted to her all the same. In turn, Cassandra falls in love with Simon, while Stephen is in love with Cassandra. Though Rose and Simon become engaged, they share not "chemistry," and that's the point: she's marrying for money. There are plenty of sparks between Cassandra and both of the Cotton brothers, but perhaps that's because we have glimpses into Cassandra's soul (that we don't have for Rose) through her diary entries.

Cassandra is not a casual writer, jotting a few daily errands into a diary. Instead, she's a serious chronicler of life in the castle and her own feelings. This is where she attempts to "capture" the castle, to document what it means to live in the castle and be a member of the Mortmain family. Her perspective makes the awkwardness of adolescent romance very clear, with some moments laughable, as when Cassandra imagines both herself and Rose as trembling brides in negligees on their wedding night, or replays her first kiss in slow motion in her mind. Such musings might seem humorously sentimental and clichéd to those of us not enduring her angst.

Still, some feelings are hard to put into words, and trying to do so only makes relationships more complicated, such as when Stephen and Cassandra are trying to figure out how they feel about one another. Since childhood, they have treated one another as brother and sister, but Stephen professes to be in love with Cassandra, while Cassandra is attracted to him and jealous of other females' attentions yet wants to keep the sibling relationship. Sitting on a bench in London after Cassandra has had a huge fight with Rose, Stephen and Cassandra try to talk out their feelings, with difficulty.

But Cassandra insists on putting these feelings into words, in her precious journal. This is where she works out which relationships are based on love and which on desire, which might last and which are fleeting. And so, Cassandra grows up in I Capture the Castle, becoming more aware of the world outside the castle, but embracing life within the castle as well.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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