A Lit Major At The Movies: I Capture The Castle (2003)

I Capture the Castle film posterI Capture The Castle was never going to be an easy film to make. The book is written as the journal of a young girl in 1930s England. The plot is bog-standard, almost on the side of boring (handsome young men come into neighbourhood, pretty young women pursue handsome young men, pairing-up ensues). Considering that the true magic of the book lies in the youthful simplicity and honesty of Cassandra Mortmain’s voice, making a film version seems like a bit of a tricky endeavour.

All this considered, then, the 2003 movie actually does a decent job capturing the tone and style of the book. As you might expect, there are lots of shots of green English landscapes, with the Mortmain’s castle as a centrepiece. Visually, there are some very pretty moments as we explore the English countryside and the recesses of Cassandra’s imagination.

But Dodie Smith’s book is less about the landscapes than the people who inhabit them. And the only way this adaptation would possibly work is if the characters are rendered convincingly. This probably has a lot to do with the actor chosen to play Cassandra, Romola Garai (veteran of more than a few costume dramas over the years). She was twenty-one when the film was made, but she does a good job of portraying Cassandra’s ‘conscious naivety’ on-screen. The supporting cast is likewise great, with Rose Byrne doing an excellent Rose, and Bill Nighy solid as usual as Cassandra’s writer father.

I Capture the Castle film Cassandra sink

Romola Garai as naive Cassandra (left) and Rose Byrne as Rose (right).

The Americans are a little weaker; although I liked Marc Blucas as Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s white-bread boyfriend Riley, he’s not the best Neil I could ever imagine. Although he is better than Henry Thomas’ Simon, who is just too awkward and silent to be a very convincing love interest or a leading man. Although, to be fair, I may be a little biased, considering how little I liked Simon in the book. Strange, considering I’m usually all for the quiet, bookish types (hey, us book nerds need to stick together, after all!). When I first saw this film, several years ago, I disliked both Americans because I was completely besotted with the handsome Stephen (Henry Cavill). And although that’s once childish preference I’ve yet to shake off, I did appreciate the merits (and roles) of both characters a little more this time around.

I Capture the Castle film Americans

Awkward introductions: Marc Blucas as Neil (left) and Henry Thomas as Simon (right).

It’s always funny watching films you loved when you were younger after several years have passed. I watched this film as a teenager, quite possibly the best time to watch a movie which deals with the complicated experience of becoming an adult. Like the book, one of the things this film does exceptionally well is depict Cassandra’s sexual development. The film frequently uses long, lingering shots and fantasy-sequences to get its viewers into the mindset of the teenage girl discovering desire.

I Capture the Castle film Cassandra

Five points if you can guess what Cassandra is thinking about here. Hint: she isn’t thinking about pie.

Of course, becoming an adult is about more than just romantic fantasies with bluebells and handsome young men. The second thing this film does well is depict the relationship between Cassandra and her father. Although it only features in the second part of the movie, Cassandra’s disappointment with her father and her decision to take matters into her own hands is very well done. The scenes are funny and tender, as Cassandra and her brother lock their father in Belmotte Tower to force him to write.

I Capture the Castle film father tower

Bill Nighy as Mr Mortmain.

Finally, the ending. As I mentioned in my review of the book, I was never crazy about the ending of I Capture The Castle, where Cassandra writes ‘I love you’ over and over in the margins of her now-full exercise book. And although I’ve tried to justify this incredibly soppy ending to myself, I’m still not entirely sold on it. The film preserves these final words, but changes them slightly: instead, Cassandra writes “I love, I have loved, I will love”. Scarcely a huge improvement, but hearing these words spoken aloud I was again reminded of the importance of individuality in I Capture The Castle. Like the assertiveness of the title I Capture The Castle, the repeated ‘I, I, I’ of the final few moments of the movie/book emphasises subjectivity, and the importance of having a sense of self, of one’s own identity. That identity can change, of course, as Cassandra’s does over the course of the story, but what is important is to remain true to it despite social pressure to conform. Which is not to say that other people are not important – merely that they should never dictate who one is as an individual.

I Capture the Castle film final scene

What’s it all about? The closing shot of the movie.

The movie seems to suggest more obviously than the book that Cassandra’s infatuation with Simon is in the past, as she steps away from him and he fades into the background of the camera’s shot. The film ends with Cassandra standing on top of a tower of the castle, looking out into the distance/future. It ends on a hopeful note, leaving viewers to imagine exactly what kind of future might be waiting. It’s this hopeful note which makes both the book and the film so enjoyable to read and watch.

Rating: 4 Stars

4 Stars

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2 thoughts on “A Lit Major At The Movies: I Capture The Castle (2003)

  1. Insightful analysis — I really enjoyed this discussion, especially as book adaptations usually make compromises that can weaken some of its strengths or skew relationships. I found Romola Garai really convincing and Sinead Cusack suitably domineering as Mrs Cotton.

    • Definitely! Their performances were very strong.

      I think ‘compromises’ is a really great word to use when describing film adaptation, because there’s always a trade-off when you bring certain material to the screen: you can’t show everything, and you need to find a way of expressing certain relationships and ideas in a different medium.

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