All the meticulousness, intelligence, taste and superior acting that one expects from Merchant Ivory productions have been brought to bear on “The Remains of the Day.” This curious, cloistered piece, which examines the life of a very proper English butler who sacrifices anything resembling a personal life in total dedication to his master’s needs, is continuously absorbing but lacks the emotional resonance that would have made it completely satisfying. Top performances from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, as well as the Merchant Ivory cache, make this a class, late-fall entry for Columbia, although appeal may not be as deep or long-lasting as that of “Howards End.”
Based on the 1989 Booker Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, this impeccably made film wears its literary origins a bit more obviously than the team’s recent E.M. Forster adaptations, and some structural problems, particularly in the late going, have not been entirely worked out.
But if it doesn’t quite reach the brass ring, film still possesses plenty of riches to beguile the discriminating viewer. As faithfully adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, story provides an uncanny point of entry into a very particular and unusual mindset, that of a man entirely devoted to service, as well as into a specific and fascinating historical milieu, that of the upper-class British partial to the Nazis during the 1930s.
Told in flashbacks via narrated letters, story begins with the aging butler Stevens (Hopkins) traveling across Britain to see his former co-worker, Miss Kenton (Thompson).
Stevens’ employer at the palatial Darlington Hall is now an American ex-congressman, Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve), and in the course of his journey, Stevens recalls life at the great estate in its heyday, when it was the center of a glittering social and political circle, with Stevens in command of innumerable servants.
Fastidious in every detail and mindful of every nuance and nicety, Stevens places dignity and decorum at the top of life’s values and his own emotional needs at the bottom. The latter are never seriously called into question, but are nevertheless tested a bit in his relationship over several years with Miss Kenton. In certain key scenes, Miss Kenton tries to break through Stevens’ wall of reserve, only to find, to her increasing frustration, that it is not to be transgressed.
But then, nothing can ruffle Stevens, not even the death of his father, who inconveniently expires during a major political conference hosted by Lord Darlington (James Fox). An affable single gentleman, Darlington harbors German sympathies that, as 1939 approaches, lead him to become a leading appeaser of Hitler and, later, a virtual traitor.
Stevens pretends to be, or actually is, oblivious to the moral rot of his master. Asked to fire two young Jewish maids, Stevens obediently complies, while Miss Kenton at least threatens to quit in protest. Only much later does Stevens recognize that he may have spent the prime of his life in the service of a man whose intentions were misguided at best and evil at worst.
His recognition of a missed opportunity with Miss Kenton spurs him to take the cross-country journey to meet her. Although they have always been “Mr. Stevens” and “Miss Kenton” to one another, it is clear that she came to deeply love him, and only his unbending rigidity forced her to run off and marry someone else.
The thematic and dramatic similarities of “The Remains of the Day” to Col’s other prestige fall release, “The Age of Innocence,” can hardly go unremarked upon. Drawn from distinguished literary properties, both portray an insulated, stultifying upper-class milieu that suffocates the potential romance of the leading characters, causing regret years later.
The pictures are also notable for the preponderance of formal dinners, fancy clothes and rich decor. Like Martin Scorsese’s film, James Ivory’s is exquisitely made, although on a less lavish and costly scale. Four English country houses were used to summon up Darlington Hall, a fabulous estate that beautifully represents an all but vanished way of life. The film can’t dwell on the minutiae of service to the extent that the book does, and a bit more humor might have been applied to detailing it, but the all-encompassing nature of the job is solidly conveyed. All the Merchant Ivory behind-the-scenes regulars — lenser Tony Pierce-Roberts, production designer Luciana Arrighi, costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, composer Richard Robbins and editor Andrew Marcus — deliver their customary top-drawer goods.
But more than ambiance, this is a film of acting. Continuing his recent roll of sterling performances, Hopkins creates a superbly observed and nuanced Stevens. A man ruled by propriety, he only relaxes slightly in private with a cigar and a cheap novel. Hopkins cunningly toys with the audience at times, hinting that the character might crack a bit or drop his reserve, but he never does, as the actor offers up a man who is sadly defined by his job, rather than by his needs or desires.
Pic also reps another career highlight for Thompson, who expertly reveals the conflicting feelings of her conventional, if occasionally spirited, character. If the ending feels emotionally flat, it isn’t the fault of the lead actors but of the script’s somewhat lumpy construction, which causes the film to seem to evaporate rather than conclude.
James Fox is ideal as the distracted, fatally sentimental Lord Darlington, Christopher Reeve brings authority and Yankee energy to the one dissenting voice in the collaborationist circle, and Peter Vaughan is astounding as the elder Mr. Stevens, who continues in service even after he begins losing his faculties. One can see in him almost everything one needs to know about why his son turned out the way he did.