Capturing the castle: Check; Falling in love: Checkmate

Why are writers and producers – not to mention audiences – drawn to star-crossed love stories that twist the hearts of sibling pairs into painful knots? We watch, captivated, as brother betrays brother, sister betrays sister and familial loyalty strains beneath the weight of true love. “I Capture the Castle,” the feature-film debut of director Tim Fywell, rises to the challenge of a predictable plot with such lyrical grace that the story emerges refreshed and renewed, with an integrity all its own.

Filmed predominantly on the rugged Isle of Man, “I Capture the Castle” throws together two wealthy brothers, two impoverished sisters and a homely castle that seems to have grown out the rambling moors. Though the costumes clearly place the film in the 1930s, the wild countryside gives the story a sense of timelessness. “Capture” is also remarkably self-contained; the cast of characters is so closely knit that the film builds on itself, gathering momentum from its internal energy.

The film opens with an abrupt change in the lives of young Rose (Rose Byrne) and Cassandra (Romola Garai). Their father, James Mortmain (Bill Nighy), is an intellectual one-hit wonder, a novelist with a severe case of writer’s block. He has the look of someone from a Dickens novel, his hollowed cheeks framed by light tufts of sandy hair. On a whim, he moves the family to a dilapidated medieval castle and triumphantly proclaims, “I shall write masterpieces here!” from the ramparts.

But the castle’s charm quickly fades. By the time that Rose and Cassandra are grown, the family is heavily in debt, James still hasn’t published a single word and the castle has descended beyond repair. Life is bleak and lonely for the sisters. Cassandra, observant and wise beyond her years, balances and complements the flammable bitterness that drives Rose to constant bursts of temper. Yet even Cassandra becomes wary of happiness; she shuns the idea of true love and steadily lowers her threshold for contentment. “It is a golden memory and I am suspicious of it,” she says of the Mortmains’ first day at the castle.

Just when the family’s situation becomes nearly unbearable, the handsome American Cotton brothers enter the picture. The elder, Simon (Henry Thomas), inherits the castle and its associated estate from a distant relative and arrives to inspect the property with Neil (Marc Blucas). Though their personalities are polar opposites, Simon and Neil are both entirely vulnerable to Rose’s beguiling beauty. Cassandra watches from a distance as they vie for Rose’s affection, knowing full well that her sister would “marry a chimp if he had the money.”

Eventually, with the aid of Cassandra’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Simon proposes to Rose and sweeps her off to London to plan the wedding. Cassandra, full of congratulations for her sister and relief for her family, chooses to believe that Rose loves Simon sincerely. Not until Rose sends a letter home with a three-page list of her purchases, prices included, does Cassandra begin to question her role as an accomplice to the marriage.

She travels to London to confront Rose and listens, horrified, to her sister’s cold detachment. “[Simon] wants and he wants and he wants to be loved with every fiber of being. Can’t explain it,” Rose says with a shrug of her powdered white shoulders and a flip of her permanently-waved hair.

As the story unfolds and the love triangles multiply and overlap, Cassandra’s keen observation – “It’s like some hideous party game” – takes on new urgency. “I Capture the Castle” plays with the idea that love, for a character like Rose, is an inherently selfish decision. It’s a game of self-interest, with lovers’ hearts as pawns and personal satisfaction the prize of victory. By allowing only one winner, the game takes on a quality of darkness, distorting the ideal of love.

”I Capture the Castle” is based on a 1948 novel of the same title by Dodie Smith, author of “The Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Although the coming-of-age and fairy-tale themes make the story accessible to a younger audience, the tone of the film is one of maturity. This is largely due to Cassandra’s poise as narrator; though just 18 years old at the end of “Castle,” she often seems the most adult of all the characters. Her father lacks the discipline to take care of himself (not to mention his children), her stepmother, Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), follows her every bohemian impulse and the Cotton brothers are childishly mesmerized by Rose’s external beauty. Cassandra alone bears responsibility for her actions.

In one of his better moments, Simon describes Cassandra as “consciously naive.” The film suggests that he could not have paid her a better compliment; Cassandra’s rejection of all things sophisticated frees her from the “hideous party game” of love and allows her to rise above the surrounding disarray. By the end, she is no longer the quiet sister in the background, but the film’s true heroine.