In our opinion, from a strictly point of view, the central idea of this movie realized by Michael Hoffman in 1995 is the genesis of the medical vocation. And if they were allowing me to add a subtitle, surely they would choose "Medicine´s Triumphs", paraphrasing the name of a book published in Spain in 1977 supported by Prodes Laboratories. Stocks on the homonym novel of the writer Rose Tremain, the script was adapted to the screen by Rupert Walters.
The medicine will be the discipline that will triumph finally in the turbulent life of Robert Merivel, pupil of William Harvey in the Royal College of London, doctor of the royal kennels, who after young boys taking in his years a dissolute existence finally decides to dedicate the rest of his days to the care his similar ones. But for any victory a price must be paid: the doubts will harass the doctor protagonist during the whole movie; is he really capable of recovering? For the way he will lose Pierce, his best friend and colleague, who dies in the lazaretto of the Quakers without Merivel could avoid it. The history will repeat itself also with his wife. Then, so bold efforts deserve really a sorrow trying to save from the claws of the death a few unfailingly mortal neighbors?
The setting of this movie places in the period of the British history known as Restoration. It was initiated in 1660, soon after Oliver Cromwell's death, under the reign of Charles II, popularly known as the Happy Monarch, defender of the arts, spendthrift, keen on women and famous in addition for his sexual promiscuity, which generated an illegitimate children's long list.
In this movie, the royal libertinism passes parallel to that of the physician interpreted by Robert Downey Jr, actor who turns out to be much more convincing in the comical records, enterteining scenes in those that Merivel will finish turned into confidant, procurer and royal buffoon. Winner of the Oscar to the best actor in 1992 for his splendid interpretation of Charles Chaplin, his professional career is full of unevenness, including problems with the law.
Robert Merivel, son of a gloves´s manufacturer, accedes to the studies of medicine thanks to the paternal efforts. Companion of learning and misfortunes of his colleague John Pierce (David Thewlis), lives immersed in a stage of the history of the medicine placed in the whiteness of the adoption of the scientific method. In this aspect, some scholar holds that "the well-known correlation of the disease during the life with the structural alterations after the death drove to the modern development of the scientific medicine".
In those times, Harvey had discovered and described the major traffic of the blood (being based on the works of the spanish Dr. Miguel Servet). There exists a significant scene of the movie, in which Merivel and Pierce face a patient who presents a tremendous thoracic, secondary perforation to the cicatrization in wound opened of a fistula provoked by former costal fractures, in that it is perceived in vivo through the beat of his heart. She seems to be extracted of the picture "Lesson of Anatomy", identical with 1681 for the baroque Dutch artist Cornelis de Man.
Fruit of the chance, Charles II (Sam Neill) observes furtively as Merivel dares to introduce his hand in the palpitating opened scar. Immediately he will call it to his side, in order that he tries to recover to one of his favorite bitches. He says an old aphorism that the patients recover, still in spite of the doctors. Merivel passes the night close to the sick pet, allowing that the natural course of the disease should evolve freely. The recovery of the animal elevates towards the success Merivel. The king will admire the euphony of his name, his ingenuity and his sauciness in the intrigues of the court, he fulfils him with gifts and favors, even he delivers him in marriage one of his favorites, Lady Celia Clemence (Polly Walker) and sends him to live through Bidnold, a mansion with gardens and estates confiscated to a puritan partial to Cromwell, trying to conceal his lover before the jealousies from other one from his favorites, Lady Castlemine.
In my own opinion, too many coincidences exist between the imaginary Merivel´s character and that of the notable one that lived through the reality of the court of Charles II those years. It is a question of Samuel Pepys, son of a modest tailor, who thanks to his ingenuity and his political skills reached the post of Lord Secretary of the British Navy, he was a member of the Parliament and President of the Royal Society. As Merivel, preferred happening his time of leisure touching the piccolo and the viola. Even he managed to be platonically in love with the proper Lady Castlemine. Author of a prolific diary, criticized the customs of the society of the epoch, portraying, almost like in an article, the desolation of London in 1665 provoked by the pest and for the fire that devastated the city one year later. Maybe the writer Rose Tremain inspired by Pepys's life to recreate the personage of Merivel.
Leaving aside the reality, and continuing with the plot of the film, in Bidnold he will consume his days former debauchery, left the melancholy, touching the flute, painting the local landscapes, passionately lover with Celia, wife and forbidden fruit for him for express royal desire. Only the veteran butler Will Gates (interpreted by the distinguished British actor Sir Ian McKellen) will use him as support in so bland days. As well as the chance relieved in the past the evil of the sick puppy of the sovereign one, this time the natural course of the disease ends with the life of Lady Celia's pet, an Indian nightingale. They are reborn in Merivel the ideas of the impotence of the doctor before the disease and the death. Conquered by the tedium, the desire and the passion, he approaches his wife in the night of Bidnold's gardens, but she humiliates it and rejects it. Elias Finn (Hugh Grant), a social climber painter who comes to Bidnold to realize the royal order of Lady Celia's portrait, reaches the perfidy on Merivel, the loss of the favor of the monarch and his exile of the kingdom of the abundance.
With the only possession of his clothes and of a mount, Merivel leaves Bidnold and intends for a sanatorium for mental patients managed by the Quakers of John Pierce. In certain way, come to this point of the cinematographic story, one comes to the head the recollection of the history of the adventurer Raymond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) the central personage of "Barry Lindon" (Stanley Kubrick, 1995). Merivel is a holder of a special gift for the exercise of the medicine; with his methods manages to free the young woman Katharine (Meg Ryan) of the claws of the depression and of the hysterics, but simultaneously, his passion pushes it to the arms of his patient, whom there makes pregnant. Again in the way, Merivel comes again to London, where he will live discreetly of medicine´s practice.
But the mishap returns to do his appearance. The childbirth is complicated, his wife is unable to bring her son to the world, and before the possibility of losing also the mother, Merivel takes the most difficult decision of his life, practising a caesarean to Katherine without anesthesia, with the alone help of a midwife. The unsuccessful young woman dies in the puerperio, consumed by the fever and the depletion.
THE PEST IN LONDON: in the movie, the director portrays with mastery the surroundings of the Thames, hundred where of workers they develop their daily labors in conditions of misery and insalubrity. It seems to be that it was an epidemic of bubonic pest the one that devastated Great Britain between 1665 and 1666, imported from Holland, which ships were trading with the Britishers. The proliferation of rates, carriers of the causal agent Yersinia pestis, provoked the dissemination of the disease, which according to the chronicles finished with the life of the fifth part of the inhabitants of London (near 100000 persons). There exist authors who distrust the hypothesis of the pest as person in charge of The Great Plague of London, inclining more in favour of a hemorrhagic viral fever. In those days, and up to approached good the 19th century, the doctors were thinking that the transmission of these infectious diseases was realized by air, caused by pernicious effluvia (steams, mists) and miasmas. To fight the evil, they were using big pyres of fire, in which they were burning all kinds of strongly aromatic substances (pepper, incense, hop, enclosed tobacco).
In the movie, to face the pest, Merivel makes pass for John Pierce, to purify his own life, a curious mask is placed (precedent of certain Venetian masks?) In the shape of head of bird, and in the supposed beak he introduces mixtures of flowers and medicinal herbs this way to avoid to inhale the corrupt air of the stays of the patients. A great censer (as a classic botafumeiro) flies for the rooms of the royal palace while Lady Celia convalesces in bed. Paradoxically, for the fire the end of the epidemic will come, since in 1666 the flames destroy the humblest and motley neighborhoods of London. The natural selection did the rest. This great fire is present in the movie when Merivel tries to rescue desperate his small daughter Margaret of a sure death among the flames.
THE ISOLATION OF THE PATIENTS: Merivel orders to separate the healthy ones of the patients. Already preventive measures of quarantine existed, closing the infected homes and punishing with the death sentence the abandon of the same ones, but applied to all its inhabitants. It was a historical fact the heroic example of the people of Eyam (Derbyshire), which shut in thereselves among their walls to avoid the spread of the plague. This way they obtained it, still at losing 75 % of their inhabitants. A similar quarantine would be reported by Albert Camus in his work "The Pest".
Happy end. The medicine triumphs, Merivel will dedicate his life to the care of his similar ones. And the film was rewarded by two prizes Oscars in 1996: Eugenio Zanetti, for the artistic direction, and James Acheson, for the wardrobe.