Remains of the Day is a story about a love relationship that might have been, but which was allowed to evaporate by the reticence of one party. Set in the context of the rise of Nazi tensions just prior to World War II, it is also a lavish period piece featuring beautifully rendered performances by two of the best performers of the last few decades, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The Merchant-Ivory team has skillfully integrated all of these assets following their oft-successful formula.
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Historical Background: Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala already had more than three decades of experience behind them when they came to making The Remains of the Day in 1993. From their first success in 1965, Shakespeare Wallah, the trio began perfecting a formula consisting of gorgeous sets, period authenticity, strong characterizations, and the very best acting available in the British thespian pool. That approach was worked and reworked successfully, in such films as Savages (1972), The Europeans (1979), Quartet (1981), Heat and Dust (1983), The Bostonians (1984), A Room with a View (1986), Maurice (1987), and Howards End (1992). James Ivory, who was born in Berkeley, California in 1928 and grew up in Kamath Falls, Oregon, met producer Ismail Merchant while filming a documentary in India. They formed a lasting partnership that was further augmented by the addition of talented scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German-born writer of Polish-Jewish descent who had married an Indian man.
The Story: It is 1958 and Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the butler at Darlington Hall, is taking a rare day off. He's been thinking about the mistakes that he's made with his life and hopes to rectify the one that he's felt most keenly. He'll be journeying to the western provinces to visit a former Darlington Hall housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), whom he had once loved, in his own limited way, to discover if she can be persuaded to resume her old position under the hall's new proprietor, former American Congressmen, Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve). Mr. Lewis loans Stevens the old Daimler for his journey. As he proceeds, Mr. Stevens reviews some of the key events from the old days at Darlington, which viewers observe in flashback.
In those by-gone years, Lord Darlington (James Fox) had played host to world leaders and international conferences in which the future of Europe was under intense discussion. Darlington, a man of honor and good will, had thought the Treaty of Versailles excessively punitive to Germany and ungentlemanly. He had seen one of his old German friends commit suicide when his business had been destroyed by hyperinflation. With his sympathies cultivated by Nazi sympathizers, Darlington earnestly believes that Great Britain should do its utmost to maintain peace with the new Germany that's emerging in the mid-thirties. Later, his efforts on behalf of appeasement will result in Darlington Hall being labeled a traitor's nest, but in 1935, Darlington is simply doing his best to persuade his fellow English aristocrats to permit Germany to reestablish itself as a vigorous nation.
Stevens cares nothing about the particulars of such weighty issues. He trusts his employer explicitly and knows him to be a man of good will. It is not a butler's place to listen in on his employer's conversations. "To listen to the gentlemen's conversations would distract me from my work," he explains. Stevens is a consummate professional and sees himself doing his part for king and country by ensuring the comforts of the important visitors that come and go. Stevens caters to his employer's needs, even when he's asked to perform the odious task of explaining the facts of life to Lord Darlington's godson, Cardinal (Hugh Grant). Fortunately for both Stevens and Cardinal, the latter proves to be in no need of such instruction.
One of Stevens's jobs is to maintain the hall's staffing at proper levels. After a housekeeper runs off with an under-butler, Stevens finds a highly qualified replacement for the crucial position of housekeeper in the form of Miss Kenton. For the under-butler position, Stevens hires his own father, who has himself been a lifelong manservant and who brought up Stevens in the tradition of service to the gentry. Over a period of time, Miss Kenton finds herself attracted to Stevens's dignified air of authority, despite occasional disagreements over household protocols. They disagree sharply over the sacking of two maids, merely because they are Jewish. She tries to break through Stevens's barriers to self-expression, but has little overt success. She gently mocks Stevens for his excessive primness, but tends to his ailing father, when Stevens is too engaged in his duties to do so. The most she can extract from the reticent and proper Stevens in the way of a profession is, "You mean so much to this house." One day, Miss Kenton discovers Stevens's reading a book and playfully demands to know what it is. Stevens refuses to reveal the substance of the book but Miss Kenton flirtatiously pries it from his hand, discovering not some lascivious novel but a sentimental romance. Stevens is shaken by her invasion of his shell of privacy and orders her out of his room.
Finally, there is nothing for Miss Kenton to do but admit defeat. She reluctantly accepts an offer of marriage from a butler, Tom Benn (Tim Pigott-Smith), for another gentleman. She equivocates long enough to give Stevens an opportunity to speak up for himself, but he does not do so, offering her only his warmest congratulations. Miss Kenton enters into a loveless marriage, from which she has just newly extracted herself in 1958. It is for that reason that Stevens has gone to visit her, hoping to bring her back to Darlington Hall and perhaps rectify the opportunity for personal happiness he had earlier passed over.
Themes: The essential theme of this film is the ways in which we can waste our lives. As Stevens looks back from the vantage point of accumulating years, he understands two distinct ways in which he has wasted his. First is the emptiness of having repressed his emotional life and passed up the opportunity to preserve the one relationship in his life that he had most cherished. "Why do you always have to hide what you feel, Miss Kenton had asked him. Now he must pose that question to himself. To forgo personal fulfillment in the name of professional duty will often seem like a hollow choice, in the end. One implicit moral of this story is to stay in touch with your feelings and never hold back from expressing the love you feel for people in your life.
If the professional endeavors that you gave priority turn out to have been less earth shaking than you had anticipated, the feeling of misplaced priorities will be all the more intense. Stevens devoted himself with fierce determination to the service of Lord Darlington, believing that Darlington's initiatives were for the good of the country, only to discover, in retrospect, that Darlington's efforts had become the scorn of the country. The other implicit moral of this story, therefore, is that if you are going to devote your life to a cause, you need to be darn certain that the cause is one you'll still feel good about in the years ahead. There's no emptier feeling that finding you've devoted your efforts to a wrong-minded cause. Blind loyalty is no substitute for exercising your own independent judgment because the person to whom you've devoted your efforts may have chosen his or her causes poorly. That argument, by extension, can also serve as a general condemnation of the entire class system in which the lower classes dutifully serve the initiatives of a sometimes misguided and always self-interested aristocracy.
Production Values: The multicultural dimensions of the present film are truly staggering. The screenplay, written by a German-born Jew married to an Indian man, was based on a novel written by an English-educated, Japanese novelist, Kazuo Ishiguro, featuring representatives of England, Germany, France, and America discussing international relations in the period between the two world wars. Ishiguro won the Booker Prize for his novel, but, on the surface of the matter, it would seem to be an almost unfilmable piece of literature. In the novel, the story is told almost entirely from a first-person introspective viewpoint. Though Stevens never even thinks in explicitly romantic terms, his feelings are revealed implicitly through what readers learn of his interior monologue. Then, in addition, much of the story is told in retrospective from the vantage point of the fifties. It accrues mainly to the credit of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala that the filmed adaptation remains true to the character of both the story and the protagonist, Stevens, without resorting to either narration or an excess of dialog. Depending too heavily on dialog would have been untrue to Stevens's reticent nature. Jhabvala's script, together with Ivory's skillful direction, gave this touching story both depth and interest. Some viewers will complain, as some do for every Merchant-Ivory production, about boredom, but there's nothing serious filmmakers can do about attention spans that have been badly damaged by a steady diet of music videos, video games, and action films. The Remains of the Day is a powerful and riveting implicit love story that every romantic will find touching. It's a penetrating psychological and social study with a depth and subtlety that is truly extraordinary. Harold Pinter had earlier taken a stab at adapting the same novel, for producers Mike Nichols and John Calley, but the project had ultimately been abandoned.
Merchant-Ivory is well known for elaborate productions with splendid period detail and beautiful cinematography. The production values for this film are topnotch in every department. The film was shot entirely on location, in a number of manors scattered throughout England. The color is intense and some of the individual frames are stunningly composed. Viewers are afforded an almost documentary quality exposition of the operation of those great halls of England, with the myriad servants operating in an intricately structured hierarchy. Merchant-Ivory regular Richard Robbins wrote the score. He used repetition of simple themes to reflect the passage of time, as Stevens goes about his routine, diligently performing the same chores day after day. Then Robbins superimposed a motif that signifies Stevens himself.
This film reunites Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson from their magnificent outing in Howards End. The performance here by Anthony Hopkins is even better than the splendid one that he provided for the previous film. The performance here by Thompson is also magnificent, though less demanding than her brilliant performance in the earlier film. Both leads are deeply sensitive in portraying their characters. Hopkins's role here is not an easy one because his character represses his emotions and yet it's critical that we sense his inner turmoil. Hopkins succeeds in subtly revealing all of his character's complexities. Hopkins's other film work includes The Lion in Winter (1968), A Bridge Too Far (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Howards End (1992), Nixon (1995), Amistad (1997), Hannibal (2001), and The Human Stain (2003). Emma Thompson's film appearances have included Howards End (1992), In the Name of the Father (1993), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Carrington (1995), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Primary Colors (1998), and Love Actually (2003).
There are some fine supporting performances in this film, especially from Christopher Reeve, James Fox, and Hugh Grant, a pretty impressive group of headliners to be able to cast in supporting roles. The late Christopher Reeve was best known for the Superman films, but also appeared in Street Smart (1987). Fox worked in such films as The Servant (1963), Performance (1970), Passage to India (1984), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), The Whistle Blower (1986), The Russia House (1990), and Patriot Games (1992). The now famous Hugh Grant can be seen in Sirens (1994), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), Two Weeks Notice (2002), and Love Actually (2003).
Bottom-Line: The Columbia Special Edition DVD is a splendid package, with a variety of fine extras. The audio commentary track features Emma Thompson, Ismail Merchant, and James Ivory. It's a light, breezy conversation consisting of reminiscences, mainly, rather than analysis or technical background. There are two documentaries, one dating from about the time of the film's initial release and the other from just a few years ago. A few deleted scenes are included, although it's easy to understand why each of them was removed from the final product. The subtitle options are the broadest I've seen for a film: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai. Filmographies are also included.
The British Film Institute lists this film as the 64th best British film ever. I would rate it higher than that certainly among the top fifty. It's a heart-rending tragic love story with an intelligent script, beautifully filmed, and with outstanding performances from both the leads and the supporting actors. This film is among the best of the Merchant-Ivory efforts. I highly recommend it.
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