Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) remains an opulent period melodrama, exquisitely wrought with psychological complexity and an underlying social commentary about England’s caste system. Herein, Ishiguro uses the English butler as his template, catalyst, and cultural touchstone to illustrate pre-war England’s stoic isolationism and its slow and equally as tragic post-war demise. In more recent times, Julian Fellowes has done as much with Gosford Park (2001) and TV’s Downton Abbey (2010 - ). But The Remains of the Day ought to be credited with starting the trend; or rather, resuscitating it from a long overdue hibernation. During WWII, Hollywood excelled at telling tall tales about this highly fictional and equally as ‘merry’ ole isle across the Atlantic, supremely cultured on the one end, yet teeming with ribald cockney humor on the other. Britain’s own perspective – at least in the movies – was somewhat more circumspect. Yet, in hindsight, it was Hollywood that set the tone for North American perceptions about London after midnight, the white cliffs of Dover, and those craggy Cornwall moors where the likes of the brooding Baskervilles and/or remnants of a once proud country estate named Manderly were unearthed.
So ensconced in the collective cultural mindset have these images remained in the interim that, at least in hindsight, every modern day film-maker endeavoring to tell such a story – presumably or factually set in England – has been at their mercy. Indeed, Ishiguro would openly admit in preparing his novel he did very little research on the gentleman’s art of butlering, choosing instead to crib from his own imagination and these fertile past notions. Hence, our Stevens (peerlessly portrayed with a wounded strength of character by Anthony Hopkins), in addition to the duties one might imagine ascribed the invisible of a grand household like Darlington Hall, is also observed ironing newsprint and dusting dust jackets in the library. Visually, The Remains of the Day is a sumptuous feast; Tony Pierce-Roberts cinematography, an exemplar of meticulously crafted visual design; stunningly rich in its compositions and almost poetic and lyrical in their execution. The Remains of the Day reflects on this almost foreign epoch, where social graces and gentlemanly decorum took precedence above most everything else, with a careworn nod to the age of modernity soon to set its quaintly cultured precepts on end. Indeed, such an era was far too good (at least, to its upper classes) to last.
Where the movie excels is in its obscured contrasts and comparisons; the estate auction at the beginning of the picture (where the late Lord Darlington’s personal effects are being sold off to pay for taxes, the estate itself, darkened and boarded up), effectively injected with a vapor of life as the past enchantment rushes forth in a colorful display of red riding coats; the upper crust gathered on horseback for the fox hunt on a crisp autumn afternoon. In all, the liquidity with which director, James Ivory maneuvers from bustling pre-war England to its gloomy post-war aftermath, yields a sublime tapestry where all interwoven threads between the aristocracy and the layman are destined to unravel. Not unlike the prologue to Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939), “here is a world where gallantry had its last stand…look for it only in books as a dream remembered…” Ivory, cribbing from a superior script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, illustrates the tragic march of time through the eyes of the man most powerless to prevent its cataclysmic implosion: the butler – symbolically, the epitome of this even-keeled elegance, propriety and decorum.
Even so, the expense by which such exquisite naiveté is fraught, designed to keep the status quo comfortably ensconced within their hearth-burning antechambers, plush libraries and majestic ballrooms, exacts a disastrous price on the one forever doomed to remain a living relic in its shadow. The story is very much one of how to waste a lifetime in pursuit of trivialities, seemingly important at the moment, yet, in the grand sweep and undertow of human history, revealing their deceptiveness and depriving the substance of memory in painful sacrifices dedicated to glory. What price, this glory? For Stevens, none he can justify – or even rectify, when that rare window of opportunity faintly glimmers from the postwar abyss. At its crux, The Remains of the Day is a tragedy of fairly disturbing and occasionally epic proportions; casting a jaundice view on the England that arguably never was – at least, not entirely – as well as a sad farewell to North America’s deified version of it. In film-makers’ terms, it harks all the way back to a resplendent glamor virtually unseen in American movies today; not surprising, since the creative team behind The Remains of the Day is Merchant-Ivory – a company known for quality, craftsmanship and above all else, exceptional story-telling.
Herein, Luciana Arrighi’s production design, John Ralph’s art direction, and Ian Whittaker’s set decoration have conspired to evoke both the regal traditions of pre-war England and their inevitable post-war weariness. Understandably, the past is the more richly satisfying of these two irreconcilable worlds; sweet and familiar to anyone exposed to the Hollywood-ized version of Britain. But the filmmakers never shy away from its aftermath. Indeed, from the start of this movie, the present has already begun to linger, gradually intruding upon this picturesque past – moments of sublime luxury haunted by the deprivation of elegance and charm in the future; England’s caste system crumbling to dust in the wake of Lloyd George’s decision to make the country’s serfdom and landholders beholding to a higher authority in parliament and a personal income tax few could afford to pay without surrendering their calling as country gentlemen or ladies of leisure.
The Remains of the Day is, of course, a metaphor for this passage of time, the dwindling of the hours and life itself, both distilled to a deeper ripening of human understanding. Alas, this can only be revealed through labors born of experience and life lessons learned the hard way. It all could have become quite maudlin. Yet, Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay burnishes such overwrought drama, using it as building blocks for a more poignantly personal scenario about lost opportunities revisited. As such, The Remains of the Day is grandly edifying; the film’s visual stylization effectively serving the story rather than being mere decorous appendages; something ‘nice’ for the audience to look at and/or fill the camera lens. As a novel, The Remains of the Day was tailor made for success, though it proved a best seller only in its native England. A year before the movie’s release, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were basking in the afterglow of their Oscar-nominated Howards End; a peerless adaptation of E.M. Forester’s brilliant novel, similarly themed in Edwardian England’s caste distinctions; slum prudery, middle class morality, and upper crust snobbery. Reuniting the stars from that movie – Emma Thompson and Sir Anthony Hopkins – would prove inspired casting, although initially The Remains of the Day was begun with quite a different cast and without Merchant/Ivory’s participation.
Columbia Pictures and producer, Mike Nichols had owned the property outright for some time. Although the crux of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay wisely concentrates on the novel’s ill-fated ‘love among the ruins’- as it were – her intricately revised narrative also seeks to examine the nation’s ill-fated understanding of ‘peace in our time’; the country brought to heel at the machinations of realpolitik by its well-meaning amateurs. In many ways, The Remains of the Day is both a gentle nod and a decidedly sharp nudge to this misguided understanding of world events, exposing Britain’s Achilles heel that, by 1939, was rife for Adolph Hitler’s disastrous push into Europe.
One cannot underestimate the importance of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s superior skills as an intelligent and highly literate constructionist. The Remains of the Day moves from past to present then back again with seeming effortlessness, paralleling the blindsided optimism of pre-WWII England with its world-weary postwar aftermath; the decline and death knell of the country’s empire building era mirrored in its vanishing aristocracy typified by James Fox’s rather benign, Lord Darlington; an ineffectual political theorist who fancies himself as a power in the game. Alas, Darlington is, as American congressman, Lewis (Christopher Reeves) suggests; an amateur statesman: worse, a bumbler, allowing his own colored impressions of a prostrate Germany (clouded by the suicide of an old friend, Hans Bremer) to bungle his benevolence – leading directly to some unflattering – and untrue – postwar impressions, made long after Darlington’s death – as being both a misguided war monger and traitor to his country.
Affixed to this political tragedy is the enraptured love story between Stevens and Darlington Hall’s new housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), told with uncharacteristic, yet wholly convincing, subversive sensuality. Here is a pair unlike any other in movie history; the gentlemen’s gentleman; horrendously flawed in his belief the world will take care of itself (if one can delay the onset of one’s own opinion on practically any subject beyond the superficial concerns of achieving a high gloss polish on the sterling silver) and the woman of moral principles who lacks better judgment, but summons at least enough conviction to defy the only world she has ever known. This, leads to an uncertain future and proves anything but emotionally satisfying. It is difficult to quantify what happens between Stevens and Miss Kenton as a ‘romance’ and yet, each discovers, mostly to their own detriment, they have sacrificed whatever personal happiness might have come from their lives intertwined for no good reason in the end; the latter, merely out of frustrated stubbornness, mostly, to prove a point.
Exposing the subtleties in Britain’s miscalculated desire for peace adds yet another layer to this bittersweet melodrama. Ultimately, the impressions of the beginning of this end are gleaned from, then funneled through the rubric of one man’s incalculable inability to see beyond the comfortableness of this rigidly structured past. To satisfy these prerequisites required an actor of considerable range; also a man already well into his own emeritus years, aged in reverse through the magic of makeup. In choosing ‘Tony’ Hopkins to portray this wounded soul, prematurely aged in his stifled thoughts long before the perils of age itself have taken hold, the film is already half way home in achieving its immortality.
Since 1960, Sir Anthony Hopkins had enjoyed an enviable career, conquering the mediums of stage, television and the movies; along the way marking his territory with an indelible testament. The Welsh born Hopkins, perhaps best known for his carnivorous Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) has led a charmed life; though not without enduring the pitfalls of success. Indeed, Sir Laurence Olivier, whom Hopkins replaced in The Dance of Death (after an attack of appendicitis sidelined the star), lavished high praise, marking Hopkins as “an actor of “exceptional promise” who “walked away with the part…like a cat with a mouse between its teeth.” Hopkins would gradually migrate from stage into British television before coming to the attention of film director, Anthony Harvey, who cast him in a supporting role in The Lion in Winter (1968). This ought to have launched an exceptional film career. Regrettably, Hopkins all but disappeared from the movies shortly thereafter, struggling with bouts of alcoholism that nearly ruined his life. By 1991 – the year The Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards, Hopkins was a virtual unknown to American audiences. In hindsight, this made his reemergence all the more impressive. For several years thereafter, Hopkins remained a high profile character actor, achieving a level of success usually reserved for the dashingly youthful male star.
Initially, producer, Mike Nichols had brokered a deal with Columbia Pictures to direct The Remains of the Day. However, Nichols later backed out from the project, citing prior commitments. In handing over the reins to Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Nichols knew his pet project would be in very capable hands. Besides, Nichols would remain its de facto executive producer. In hindsight, Merchant-Ivory was the last of the small production houses capable of carrying off such a big-time entertainment. Although they frequently quarreled, Merchant and Ivory’s tempestuous personal and professional relationship seems to have brought out the very best in both men. In preproduction, this creative team scoured England’s countryside in search of the ideal estate to embody the fictional Darlington Hall. Unfortunately, they soon discovered no single house could fully satisfy all of their requirements. Most vintage manors were exceptionally well appointed but lacked period authenticity in their below stairs kitchens, cellars and servant’s quarters; long since stripped of their fixtures and, quite often, converted into gift shops or storage facilities. In stitching together the blueprint that would suggest Darlington Hall, Merchant and Ivory turned to Durham Park, then Powderham Castle; two magnificent country estates that had survived the deluge of the changing times.
Critics initially quick to dub The Remains of the Day ‘the Tony and Emma Show’ were in for a surprise. Immediately popular with audiences then, and acquiring a devoted following ever since, one is immediately dumbstruck by the film’s palpably pronounced social commentary as well as its’ thought-numbing melancholy, pervading from the peripheries of the screen. Here is a story to completely enrich the mind, intelligently stirring the heart to wince in tandem with regret, the delicate nature of its embroidered narrative proving the old Shakespearean adage, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” No small achievement indeed, and largely due to the combined creative tempestuousness brewing between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory: a formidable artistic alliance begun in 1961, the same year the couple fell in love. They would go on to produce 40 films along the way – many with an unparalleled mark of excellence and most employing the immeasurable wit of novelist cum screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Shortly before James Ivory’s death in 2005, Ismail Merchant reflected with amusement on their life-long collaboration. “It has been a strange marriage. I am an Indian Muslim. Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster.”
The Remains of the Day opens with a static line drawing of a typical English manor, its center window gradually dissolving to reveal a spectacular tracking shot under the opening credits, the camera following a vintage automobile down a heavily treed and winding country road on a particularly sullen afternoon. Our introduction to Darlington Hall is not unlike Hitchcock’s debut of Manderly in Rebecca (1940): Darlington Hall, once the grand bastion of stiff upper-lipped pride, elegance and refinement; rather, now the sad derelict, branded a ‘traitor’s nest’ in The Times, silent and diminished in the shadow of an auctioneer’s tent; its’ priceless wares sold to the highest bidder. We begin with a voiceover narration from Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson); the former head housekeeper, responding in kind to a letter written by Stevens, the head butler (Hopkins). Her brittle commentary is about the weary state of postwar England and the badly maligned reputation of the estate’s former owner; their employer, Lord Darlington (James Fox). Like the estate, Stevens has been relegated to the scrapheap of time. Yet a reprieve of sorts is in store for both the man and his memories. Retired U.S. congressman, Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeves) has bought Darlington Hall for his retirement retreat and is in the process of repossessing as many of its cultural artifacts. Lewis encourages Stevens to take a road trip in Lord Darlington’s Daimler; Stevens suggesting he might venture to the West Country where he has been practically assured of Miss Kenton’s return into service. Quickly, however, we discover Stevens has more personal reasons for making this journey.
Regressing into the film’s pre-war story, Stevens, considerably younger – is leading what he once perceived as an enviable life. As a proper English butler he is afforded the comfort of his surroundings and the honor to serve one of England’s premiere houses, of notable repute in political, as well a social circles. Lord Darlington is a gentleman of highborn pedigree who casually dabbles in politics. His meddling is well-intentioned. Inadvertently, it has drawn post-war Britain closer into the looming second European conflict. On this particular afternoon, Darlington is hosting a fox hunt for his neighbors. The day is marked – at least in Stevens’ memory – by the arrival of Sarah Kenton who has come in search of a position as its replacement housekeeper. Initially, Miss Kenton and Stevens do not get on. In fact, she mildly resents his rather imperious tone and quizzical interventions. He is, in fact, marginally amused by her initial bristling and frustration.
However, as time wears on, a quiet understanding grows between Miss Kenton and Stevens – though he seems quite incapable of accepting even her most remedial acts of kindness without remaining quietly aloof; considering the freshly cut blooms she has brought to enliven his drab room, “a distraction”, or refusing to reveal the contents of a book he has been reading in secret which turns out to be ‘just a sentimental love story’; the big reveal being Stevens might be placing his more altruistic thoughts elsewhere than on the work at hand. Perish this thought – and readily, it does simply that, as Stevens struggles to suppress his inner feelings. Jhabvala’s screenplay is particularly devious (though never false) in the way it builds upon these seemingly innocuous sparring matches, and Hopkins and Thompson are marvelous together in their subdued exchanges, brewing with burgeoning romantic realization.
With Lord Darlington’s permission, Stevens hires his aged father, William (Peter Vaughan) as the under butler. Afoot and at stake are negotiations between Germany, France, England and America; an international peace conference set to take place at Darlington Hall. Apart from its diplomatic importance, Lord Darlington is determined the conference will be an exemplar of English hospitality and tradition. But William is forgetful. Moreover, he has past his prime as a viable manservant. Unavoidable derelictions of duty are brought on by age. Miss Kenton readily recognizes these infractions and attempts to point them out to spare both men their dignity. But Stevens is adamant and unwilling to even acknowledge them. When William trips and falls on some crooked paving stones while carrying a heavy silver tray, Lord Darlington sends for the doctor, leaving his staff one short during the conference.
In the meantime, Lord Darlington’s nephew and budding journalist, Reginald Cardinal (Hugh Grant) has arrived to cover the conference for his newspaper. He cautions his uncle on prudence and contemplation, rather than big-hearted, thick-headed and empty-promised appeasement that everyone, except Congressman Lewis, seem all too willing to embrace. During these four days of heady discussion William succumbs to a stroke and dies. Miss Kenton delivers the unfortunately news to Stevens, only to be asked if she would manage all further inquiries, including closing William’s eyes. On the surface, Stevens’ inability to rush to his father’s side or even shed a tear in private over his death, seems callous. Yet, lest we forget this is a man so utterly shielded from any reality apart from his immediate duties to his employer, so recklessly guarded in an inability to express a single human emotion – perhaps even to reason, communicate or understand them fully from within – that Stevens is, for all intent and purposes, an emotional cripple.
During the conference Miss Kenton is reintroduced to Thomas Benn (Tim Piggott-Smith); a man servant whom she once knew rather well at Stanton and Lacey; her former place of employment. The two are reacquainted in Stevens’ sitting room with Benn later commenting on Kenton’s attractiveness. Herein, Stevens delivers a rather telling reply, “I’d be lost without her,” with an intense duality of meaning. On the surface, his comment is mere praise for Miss Kenton’s abilities as a housekeeper. But we begin to sense – perhaps as Stevens does for the first time – how tethered her presence has become to Stevens’ own heart, or rather, its reawakening from a very long slumber. A few days after the conference, Stevens is summoned by Lord Darlington to his study, praised for his participation but nevertheless instructed to terminate the employ of Elsa (Emma Lewis) and Irma (Joanna Joseph); two refugees previously taken in at the start of the war, who Darlington now feels are not suitable for employment because of the Jewish heritage. Miss Kenton is outraged, informing Stevens of the likely consequences; without proper references, Elsa and Irma will likely be sent back to Germany where, as history and retrospect teaches, their fate is assured. Miss Kenton threatens to resign, but later rethinks this urgent decision, her cowardice continuing to gnaw away at her.
She and Stevens come to a disagreement about the hiring of another house maid, Lizzie (Lena Headey) whom Stevens wisely regards as a young girl moving from post to post ‘looking for love’. Determined to reassert the authority she believes has been lost by betraying Elsa and Irma, Miss Kenton overrides Stevens’ decision, but later comes to regret it when Lizzie decides to run off with the rather cocky head footman, Charlie (Ben Chaplin) instead. This impromptu elopement puzzles Stevens. But it rekindles Miss Kenton’s wellspring of desire to fall in love and marry. Confiding with sincerity her affections toward Stevens, Miss Kenton amour is stifled by his non-responsiveness. She begins casual meetings with Thomas Benn on her days off, returning from one such outing on a windswept night to announce to Stevens she has received (and decided to accept) Benn’s proposal of marriage. Her news hits Stevens like a sledgehammer. But even now – with the wound so obviously deep and festering – he can do little more than congratulate Miss Kenton on her excellent choice, his voice shaky, his eyes glazed over with tears that refuse to escape.
We return to postwar England. Having run out of petrol on the open road, Stevens is forced to spend the night at a local pub where he indulges in some spirited conversation about the war and meets Doctor Richard Carlisle (Pip Torrens). The patrons mistake Stevens for a gentleman with political connections. But when asked about Lord Darlington, Stevens categorically denies he ever knew the man. The next day, Doctor Carlisle, who sees through Stevens’ disguise, offers to drive him to the spot where his car stalled with a can of petrol for his motor. In his company, Stevens confides he is a man servant who not only knew, but also greatly admired Lord Darlington, despite the papers having branded him a complicit Nazi sympathizer. Carlisle and Stevens part along the open road and Steven hurries to the West Country where he is reunited with Miss Kenton. Alas, the reunion is short-lived and fraught with the greatest loss of all. For Miss Kenton has received a letter from her daughter, soon to have a baby. She cannot return to service and will likely attempt reconciliation with her estranged husband. Her unexpected decision utterly destroys Stevens; the moment, photographed with heartbreaking sadness on a pier in Brighton out of season; Hopkins poetic stare capturing all of the arctic desolation mirrored in the stark grayness of these damp and colorless surroundings.
At the end of what remains of their day spent together, Stevens escorts Miss Kenton to her bus depot. He quietly suggests they may never meet again and removing his hat in her honor, allows the rain to cover him as he gingerly releases her hand, the bus pulling away and leaving him in darkness – both figuratively and literally. This is the movie’s most unguarded moment; Miss Kenton’s eyes full of bitter tears; Stevens, unable even now to fully realize the magnitude of his loss, blankly staring off as the bus rounds the corner before either can fully ascertain this moment as their final ‘goodbye’. In this penultimate farewell, The Remains of the Day achieves a sort of epistolary adieu on par with great lovers throughout history; and such an unlikely reveal it is too, coming between two people time has so completely forgotten. Resigned to Darlington Hall, Stevens begins the arduous task of preparing the long-shuddered house for the arrival of Lewis’ family. His efforts are momentarily thwarted by a pigeon having entered the once grand banquet hall down the fireplace flue and begun its panicked flutter in this enclosed space. The bird is eventually captured by Lewis who quietly carries it to the open French doors, releasing it from captivity; the obvious parallel, that there is no such escape for our Mr. Stevens.
Like all truly great romances, The Remains of the Day tells of an imperfect past. In all their unrequited and thwarted passions, their inconceivably misguided approach to finding happiness, these never-to-be-lovers come into the twilight of their respective lives, and with epiphanies much too late to salvage anything more from this colossally tragic realization, Hopkins’ Stevens and Thompson’s Miss Kenton are two of the most forsaken creatures on God’s green earth. Both actors have flavored their performances with irreproachable sensitivity. We feel for these characters, perhaps understanding their motives even more than they do, can or ever will. Yet, despite their unhappy end, we are ultimately fulfilled.
Twilight Time has finally come around to a North American release of The Remains of the Day. Dirty little secret: this catalog title has already been available in the U.K. for nearly two years via Sony Home Entertainment in a region free 1080p release. Is there any difference between the two? Yes, though not in image or sound quality. Whatever your selection, the transfer is identical, the movie looking positively breathtaking in 1080p. The pluses first: a gorgeous hi-def rendering with rich colors, naturalistic flesh tones, exemplary contrast levels and stunningly realized fine detail, also very accurately reproduced film grain. In short - perfect; the ‘wow’ factor definitely in evidence in virtually every frame. This is a flawless visual presentation further augmented by an exquisite DTS 5.1 audio track.
Best news to buy the Twilight Time release over the Sony: TT has reinstated the audio commentary that was part of Sony’s old DVD release but somehow missed the boat on the Euro-disc Blu-ray. Holdovers from that import include several documentaries included herein, plus deleted scenes with additional/optional director’s commentary. TT sweetens the deal further with their usual commitment to an isolated score. Bravo! First rate! Did I say, bravo?!? I’ll say it again. Bottom line: The Remains of the Day has never looked this good on home video. You must own this disc! It's that simple!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Twilight Time: 5+