- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

A weak trans-Atlantic phone connection punctuates a conversation with Tim Fywell, the director of the new English movie “I Capture the Castle,” with frequent repetitions in the key of “Can your hear me? I can barely hear you.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Fywell manages to summarize what brought him to make a belated feature debut with an adaptation of a 1948 novel by Dodie Smith, the late English writer best known for “101 Dalmatians.”

“It’s sort of a cult classic,” Mr. Fywell remarks. “Women tend to know it better than men … I keep running into women who say, ‘My grandmother gave it to my mother, and she gave it to me, and I intend to give it to my daughter.’ So it’s kind of a hand-me-down, family heritage classic as well. As a man, I found it very psychologically and emotionally truthful. I think it’s a wonderful story of first love and coming-of-age.”

Published in 1948, when Miss Smith was living in Los Angeles and devoting much of her time to screenwriting, the book harks back to the mid-1930s and depicts the dilemma of a bohemian family, the Mortmains. The father wrote a hugely successful first novel about 20 years earlier, and then on a whim took up residence in a castle in Suffolk. Unable to complete anything since, he depends on the dwindling royalties from his only success.

Demoralized by failure, he is unable to improve the prospects of two young daughters, Rose and Cassandra, and his second wife, an artist’s model called Topaze.

Ultimately, the family is rescued by the generosity of strangers: new landlords from the United States, the Cottons, who have a pair of eligible sons, Simon and Neil.

A speedy infatuation between Simon and Rose looms as a godsend, clouded by the fact that 17-year-old Cassandra, the family chronicler and narrator, also has a serious crush on her older sister’s new beau. She is also unprepared for the extent of Rose’s unscrupulousness when seizing an opportunity to marry advantageously.

Mr. Fywell, now in his late 40s, is a native Londoner who majored in theater arts at Cambridge University and spent several years directing on the stage and in television before turning to theatrical features. “I turned down other work to make sure I’d be available for [‘I Capture the Castle],” the director recounts. “I was very passionate about it, and we fought very hard to get it made the right way. We wanted an unknown English girl in the lead. Our choice, Romola Garai, has since won leading roles in other films. She was Kate Nickleby in the recent version of ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ and you’ll see her before long in ‘Havana Nights’ and ‘Dirty Dancing II.’ And she’s been cast in a new version of ‘Vanity Fair.’”

Mr. Fywell also insisted on an American casting excursion and chose Henry Thomas and Marc Blucas to play Simon and Neil Cotton, respectively. He gets a particularly arresting Neil from Mr. Blucas, a regular on the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television series in its early seasons.

“The Anglo-American casting possibilities made this project especially promising,” Mr. Fywell says. “It gave us a chance to broaden the appeal while being very faithful to the book. Not that we had a hard-and-fast policy. Rose is played by an Australian, Rose Byrne. And Mrs. Cotton is an English actress, Sinead Cusack, who has played Americans on several occasions.”

Finding a castle was, of course, a unique imperative for location scouts and the production designer. “People should not look for our site in Suffolk,” Mr. Fywell cautions. “We filmed mostly in Wales and partly on the Isle of Man. We were looking for the perfect castle, combining a fairy tale quality with enough plausibility to pass for a roughhewn sort of place that could be lived in, uncomfortably, in the 1930s. This family has fallen on hard times, of course. We looked all over England, Scotland and Wales and eventually found the best available castle, called Manorbrier, near Tenby, Wales. There were about 50 prospects that the scouts narrowed down to four or five for us to inspect. The winner had clear advantages over the others, with the exception of a dried-up moat. We needed to fill it with water for a night-time swimming interlude. Eventually, we hired a water tanker from London to fill it with Evian or Perrier or something.”

According to Mr. Fywell, lodgings at Manorbrier will be within the reach of fans who want to make an “I Capture the Castle” pilgrimage. “It’s a castle for hire,” he says. “You can rent it for a holiday. The rates are quite cheap, too. I’ve never done that sort of thing myself, but I’m sure some people would enjoy it. In France it’s not uncommon to put up at chateaus, you know?”

A resident director at the Royal Court Theatre in London at one time, Mr. Fywell hasn’t staged a play in the last decade or so. While contemplating feature projects, he specialized in television drama. His most prestigious credits included adaptations of Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White,” Ruth Rendell’s “A Fatal Inversion” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

He spent the better part of a year in Los Angeles preparing and then shooting the HBO biopic about Marilyn Monroe titled “Norma Jean and Marilyn,” which co-starred Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino. His screenwriting collaborator on “Madame Bovary,” Heidi Thomas, also adapted “I Capture the Castle.” She is completing an original romantic comedy, “The Godparents.” Mr. Fywell expects it will be his next movie.

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