I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite books ever, and thankfully this 2003 film adaptation actually gives Dodie Smith’s much-beloved novel its due respect.
Cassandra Mortmain (Romola Garai) is an 18-year-old girl living with her eccentric family in a crumbling castle in 1930s England. Her father (Bill Nighy) wrote one incredibly successful and important novel, but has since produced nothing, leaving the family in utter poverty.
Cassandra’s beautiful-but-shallow older sister, Rose (Rose Byrne), is desperate to escape their hopeless existence, so when two American men show up on their doorstep having just inherited the land on which the castle resides, she finally sees her chance. With the encouragement of their nudist, muse-like, stepmother Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), Rose sets about entrapping a wealthy husband.
Simon (Henry Thomas) and Neil (Marc Blucas) Cotton are rich, attractive, young men, and upon their arrival the Mortmain family is instantly thrown into turmoil. What follows is a story of class, family, coming-of-age, and romance. Cassandra is confused not only by her feelings for the Cottons but also for Stephen Colley (played by Henry Cavill, the new Superman). Stephen is the incredibly attractive son of the Mortmain’s former chef who acts as a handyman to the family and is deeply in love with Cassandra.
Isn’t he just way too handsome? Cassandra’s rejection of sweet, noble, gorgeous Stephen can be somewhat frustrating, but it serves to make her character much more interesting.
I Capture the Castle is a unique story, so don’t expect a typical romantic comedy or predictable characters. Cassandra is an unusually uncommon character. If I would make one criticism of this film as compared to the book it would be that she is even more of a creative, smart, young woman than the movie portrays, especially as compared to Rose whose main appeal is her beauty. In the book Rose is less likeable, and Cassandra’s relationship with her all the more complex because of it—as is often the case with family.
I Capture the Castle depicts perfectly what it feels like to be a confused teenage girl. The heartbreak of first love, the obsession of it, and the humor too, all make this a timeless tale. There is so much beneath the surface of this story, and in some ways it is a direct response to the novels of Jane Austen.
Rose seeks the traditional solution out of her impoverished life—a wealthy husband. Cassandra however, is of the first generation of women who could make their own destiny without a man by supporting themselves. Though some might find it lacking in romance, it was a very new idea for its time, and it holds an allure all its own.
This film is so beautifully shot, acted, and adapted I just can’t recommend it enough. It’s a story about growing up, finding inspiration, and living in a family that others might not understand. The Mortmains are unconventional to say the least, but they support each other’s choices and love one another in a way that transcends the drama they find themselves faced with.
Cassandra describes the characters around her with such wit and insight we can’t help but be drawn into her world. She is a modern woman, but she is only just coming to that realization, so the true pleasure is witnessing her figure that out for herself.
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