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Sunday, April 20, 2014
James Ivory | The Remains of the Day
acquiescence and denial
by Douglas Messerli
Ruth Prawer Jhbvala (screenplay, based on a screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro), James Ivory (director) The Remains of the Day / 1993
James Ivory makes very lovely pictures with serious literary concerns, but to me they generally seem more like the kind of filmed series that BBC and PBS used to show than remarkable motion pictures. If the acting is nearly always superb, the costume dramas he creates are dead on birth. And in many respects, so too is his 1993 drama The Remains of the Day a kind of perfumed music box, lovely to look at and to listen to, but almost too fragile to hold for very long—or to turn the metaphor around, it is too fragile of a story to hold our interest for the length of film.
What this film does have going for it is quite astounding, including the use of four grand country houses, Dyrham Park, Powderham Castle, Corsham Court and Badminton House, all portraying the fictional Darlington Hall. The script, based, in part, on an original treatment by Harold Pinter, is quietly ironic. But the major asset of The Remains of the Day is its absolutely brilliant cast, particularly Anthony Hopkins as Stevens, the meticulous butler who puts service in front all personal feelings. He is matched by the must more pliable and younger Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton, whom he hires as the housekeeper. She too is caring steward, but she can laugh and, under her efficient demeanor, she clearly can love, whereas Stevens seems to have forgotten that emotion. Between them is the equally excellent James Fox who as Lord Darlington, plays a man of passionate and seemingly humane concerns who, unfortunately, is on the wrong side of history and societal moral concerns. He may think he is working to help dignify the German people, but is, in fact, serving his country as a traitor.
Minor figures such as Christopher Reeve and the American Congressman Mr. Lewis, who later becomes the owner of Darlington Hall, and Hugh Grant Reginald Cardinal, Darlington’s godson, who helps in Darlington’s downfall, round out this excellent company.
The trouble with the film is that beyond that, in the work’s series of character interchanges, it is mostly all work and no play. To watch its two major figures sparring behind their statements of domestic duties quickly grows tedious; yes, all these conversations are highly ironic, each of them saying one thing while meaning another, but it’s done mostly on the sly and any wit they contain, particularly on Stevens’ end, are expressed in curt and sometimes ill-motivated directions. For all the gloriously adorned meetings and dinner parties at Darlington Hall, we listen into those conversations as if we were ourselves servants. Most of the significance of the film lies in what is not being said rather than what is said, which helps to make us feel throughout as if we are peering into the lives of these figures through frosted windows. When, later in the film, Stevens claims that he did not time to truly over-hear the conversations of Darlington’s Nazi-supporters, we believe him. Stevens’ is a world of acquiescence and denial, and despite the intelligent life we know exists below the butler’s surface through the actor’s remarkable fluid facial gestures, in his commitment to obedient service, he has almost cut himself off from the rest of the world, which may sadden us—particularly when, at the last moment, he attempts to reconnect with Miss Kenton, who has long since married and moved away—it basically cuts its audience off from any emotional commitment to his being. Like Darlington, Stevens is a failed man who is as smug in his commitment to class values as his employer.
By the time Stevens attempts to reclaim his life, he, like the Daimler he drives, has “run out of gas,” now, like a doubting Peter, denying he even knew Lord Darlington, even though Darlington has, in face, defined his life. When Miss Kenton insists, now that her daughter is having a child, that she cannot return to Darlington Hall under the employment of the new owner, it all seems quite inevitable. Like Darlington, himself, Stevens will die as an outcast, alone. There are, he discovers, no “remains” of the day left. And we, once more, may be saddened by that fact, but we have known all along that by refusing to say anything of consequence, refusing to express love or moral outrage, one’s life itself becomes insignificant, as does, alas, this well-made film. It may be, polished up and gracefully performed as it is, pretty to look at, but like Steven’s night, it is ultimately empty.
Los Angeles, April 20, 2014