The Remains of the Day (1993)

reviewed by
Dragan Antulov

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2000

One of the most common complaints against producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory is that their films look the same. Actually, phrase "Merchant-Ivory film" began to enter dictionaries as description for "adaptation of Victorian or Edwardian novel about socially repressed stiff-upper-lip middle or upper class Englishmen". However, every now and then Merchant and Ivory make the film that strays from that formula. One of such occasions was THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, 1993 adaptation of novel by Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, set in England during the last decades of British Empire.

The screenplay was written by Merchant-Ivory's long time associate Ruth Prawer Jabhvala. Film begins in 1958 when luxurious country manour called Darlington Hall gets sold to American congressman Lewis (played by Christopher Reeve). Lewis has spent some time in the manour before WW2, so he wants to gather as many of the original staff as possible. One members of the staff is long-time butler Stevens (played by Anthony Hopkins), who begins travelling England in search of his former co-workers. During the travel he remembers pre-war days in Darlington Hall, when he was employed by the Lord Darlington (played by James Fox), politically well-connected aristocrat with pro-German sympathies which grew stronger with incoming world conflict. Stevens, same as his old father (played by Peter Vaughn) was the man completely dedicated to his duty towards his master, and nothing outside his small world mattered to him, not even the increasing numbers of men in black shirt who began arriving to the estate. When new housekeeper Miss Kenton (played by Emma Thompson) arrived in Darlington, her rather different temperament and worldview caused initial friction with Stevens. But two of them gradually develop love for each other, but Stevens was bound by tradition and unable to express his feelings.

According to the old saying, the best love stories are those about unrequited, impossible or unhappy love. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, one of the most melancholic films made recently, perfectly fits this description. To make the tragedy even less bearable, the love in this film was present but never consumed. However, Jhabvala and Ivory weren't satisfied by making this film as simple melodrama about love squashed by societal pressures. They actually took great pains in order to describe and represent such pressures, making THE REMAINS OF THE DAY into film which is both melodrama and sociological study. Ivory paints both fascinating and utterly bleak picture of men who are trained all their life to supress their feelings and most natural desires for the utterly pointless and worthless ideal of "duty". In doing so, Ivory employs same subtlety and stiff-upper-lip philosophy of his protagonists. So, the inner life of the protagonists is never explicitly portrayed and instead we receive only hints in order to reconstruct the drama afterwards. This slow approach turns very effective in few scenes that feature protagonists who allow feelings to manifest through simple but powerful gestures.

This approach was perfect for Anthony Hopkins, whose role of emotionally repressed butler shares some resemblance with his best known performance in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Hopkins plays Stevens as a character who almost never changes the expression of his face or the tone of his voice, but small gestures instead can speak volumes. Such strong performance is also given by Emma Thompson as a woman who looks like his emotional opposite yet nevertheless succumbs to the same societal pressures. Two of them managed to overshadow everyone, including James Fox as their pompous aristocratic master, alienated from the outside world.

Nostalgic and melancholic feeling of the film is somewhat compromised with the filmmaker's need to put this powerful intimate drama into historical background. So, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY receive another, political dimension. Through the character of Lord Darlington, British aristocrat alienated from real world, Ishiguro, Jhabvala and Ivory try to explain reasons which led Britain to pre-WW2 appeasament policy towards Hitler. In their opinion, government was dominated by aristocrats, conservative and totally alienated from the real world and thus more than willing to accept any option that would guarantee their rigid class privileges - and Nazism was exactly such option. Lord Darlington is presented as one of such fools, whose initially innocent Germanophilia later develops into full-blown Nazism, including racial purification of his staff. Naturally, such people wouldn't have anything against Hitler taking over Europe and their influence on British government explains betrayal of Czehoslovakia in Munich 1938 - diplomatic disaster which practically made WW2 inevitable one year later. This view, although rather popular among amateur historians, is not quite correct. British appeasament of Hitler in late 1930s was motivated more with pragmatic than ideological reasons - British and French governments were impressed with the speed and scope of German pre-war re-armament and with their militaries lagging behind, appeasement was seen as buying time for re-armament of their own. Also, appeasament wasn't only advocated by aristocrats - majority of population of Western democracies prefered to sacrifice some unknown countries in Eastern Europe in order to avoid going back to trenches.

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY perhaps owe this political dimension to the times when they were made. In 1993 world's media was still bombarded with images of war-torn Bosnia and many comentators criticised British and French policy of appeasing Milosevic, drawing parallels to 1930s and Hitler. Jhabvala and Ivory offer alternative to this suicidal and morally bankrupt policy in the form of American congressman who, same as his country in 1990s, favours tough uncompromising line against world thugs. This is probably the weakest part of the film, since it is not historically accurate. USA in 1930s were more concerned with problems of Great Depression and increasingly isolationistic, with government and public even less likely to meddle into European affairs. Without that uncessary excursion into pre-WW2 politics and with authors completely concentrated on more down-to-earth drama, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY could have became true masterpiece. However, even this less than perfect film might be more than satisfying to the fans of period melodramas.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)
Review written on October 3rd 2000
Dragan Antulov a.k.a. Drax
Fido: 2:381/100

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