“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.