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A fantastic premise is utterly blown in this film by director Michael Hoffman and screenwriter Rupert Walters (the two collaborated previously on the winning Some Girls). Robert Downey Jr. plays Robert Merivel, King Charles II's (Sam Neill) spirited young physician in 17th-century England. The king offers to set Merivel up for life in exchange for one small favor: marry the royal mistress (Polly Walker) to provide his highness some cover for his philandering. But Merivel blows it by falling in love with the woman, and he is cast out of his pampered paradise to reinvent himself as a serious man helping victims of the plague beyond the palace's walls. It's a superb notion, and the film looks just terrific, particularly Charles's court, where scientific and artistic innovation flourishes. But somehow the story completely falls apart once Merivel goes on his quest for salvation. The scenes aren't there, the characters are underdeveloped, the drama is clunky. The whole enterprise feels as if an editor tried to salvage a major failure and barely came up with something coherent. --Tom Keogh
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