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|Remains of the Day, The
by Alexandre Paquin
A virtually unfilmable book is turned into brilliant cinema by sheer expertise. Anthony Hopkins delivers perhaps the finest performance of his career as a butler who comes to realize the emptiness of his life. A definite must see.Butlers are by no means scarce encounters in movies, as any period drama would be considered incomplete without one. Thanks to P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of the internationally known impassible and resourceful manservant Jeeves and of his employer Bertie Wooster, butlers became adequate subjects in comedies as well. And who can forget the mystery writer's old adage, "the butler did it?"
"One of the most moving films of the 1990's."
However, the butler, in most of these films, was usually relegated to the background, where they provided additional flavour for the film's setting. When a film includes a butler as a major character, it is to be expected that the butler will do more than his regular tasks. It is, after all, required of a butler to be self-effacing; furthermore, it is certainly the film community's belief that audiences will not be interested in the butler and what he does, but in his more prestigious employer. In contrast, the 1993 film adaptation of the 1989 Booker Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, "The Remains of the Day", emphasizes the life of one butler, who has constantly hidden his emotions behind the characteristic indifference that was expected of his profession. The film, produced by Merchant Ivory and released through Columbia Pictures, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a leading role, Best Actress in a leading role, best director, and best adapted screenplay, but won none due to the competition from other films in what could very well have been the last great year of American cinema.
Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is an aging English butler, who had long been employed by a controversial member of the British aristocracy, Lord Darlington (James Fox). After Lord Darlington's death, the ancestral manor of Darlington Hall had been sold to Mr. Lewis, a retired American Congressman (Christopher Reeve), and Stevens had stayed to serve the new owner. When the film begins, in the late 1950's, we learn that Stevens had kept in touch with a former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), who had left Darlington Hall to get married to a former butler named Benn prior to the Second World War and moved to the West Country. With her marriage now falling apart, Miss Kenton has been considering returning to her prior occupation, and Stevens, faced with a staff shortage, decides to take a vacation to meet her to discuss her potential return to Darlington Hall.
The film details Stevens's journey to the West Country, during which he reflects on his past, about which we learn through a series of extended flashbacks taking place before the war. Increasingly, we become aware of Lord Darlington's troubled past, as his misguided interest in international politics as a advocate of European peace and goodwill towards Germany led him to naively become a supporter of the Nazi regime. And as Stevens brings back these painful memories of an innocent age, he gradually realizes the emptiness of his own life, and all the opportunities he had missed -- including his love for Miss Kenton, which he had refused to acknowledge because of his overriding professional concerns and sense of duty towards his employer.
"The Remains of the Day" is a heart-breaking film in every respect. In this age of simple-minded films targeted at the lowest common denominator, "The Remains of the Day" is fresh, vibrant, and intelligent. The success of the film can be attributed to the well-chosen cast and the excellence of the regular Merchant Ivory team, which had built its reputation producing intelligent films with a period setting: producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, and composer Richard Robbins.
The success of the entire film hinges, first of all, on the screenplay. For someone who has yet to see the film but who has read the book, "The Remains of the Day" is a novel which could appear to be practically unfilmable due to its intrinsic characteristics. The book is a first-person introspective account of the butler's life, and while even Stevens, in the novel, never explicitly stated his love for Miss Kenton, the written medium allowed the reader to know what Stevens was thinking -- even when the character was reluctant to admit the inevitable conclusions of such thoughts. In the film, however, the easiest way for most screenwriters to make the audience know what Stevens was thinking would have been to make him speak about his feelings, which would have led not only to a dialogue-driven film, but to a Stevens who would be in complete opposition to his book counterpart -- the timid butler would have become talkative, and this would have led, in this context, to a lack of credibility of the central character, and the inevitable loss of the book's poignancy. What made the book so emotional was precisely Stevens's refusal to express, or even acknowledge, his feelings. In the hands of a less talented screenwriter, or one who believed that the average person needed to be told everything with the subtlety of an opera singer with a megaphone, we may have offered a few lines of this type: "Oh, Miss Kenton, I wish I could tell you how much I love you, but my professional duties..." You get the idea. Thankfully, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala stayed clear of this temptation, and opted to write an adaptation which included a rich subtext, and which relied on the actors to carry it through -- and it worked.
Although a few details about Stevens's personality are inevitably lost in the transition, we just have enough information left to understand the character. We know, for instance, that he has probably learned the profession through his father (played by Peter Vaughan), who is in the film reduced to the position of under-butler at Darlington Hall because of his age. And this is all we really know. Just as the reader never finds out the name of Maxim de Winter's second wife in Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca", we know Stevens only by his surname, and when we learn that his first name is James one hour into the film, it comes completely unexpectedly. And it is only when we realize that we will never know more than this that we understand why Stevens's tale is tragic to such an extent. Stevens is a man with very little of a past, and even less of a future. He is a relic from an age that is quickly vanishing without a trace. And there is the audience's inescapable knowledge that although history will remember Lord Darlington, Stevens will be forgotten. Stevens's acceptance of his own anonymity, and his refusal to let himself fall into self-pity as he realizes that he has wasted the best years of his life, make the audience sympathize with him. The film begins with a long drive towards Darlington Hall; it ends with an aerial shot moving away from the house. The impression it gives is that we have come full circle, that we have been introduced to a man's life at the beginning, and that as we pull away from Darlington Hall, this man is finally allowed to return to obscurity. Whatever happens to him, we'll never find out. Mr. Stevens is an accidental encounter, leaving your life as soon as he entered it, but the memory of that brief moment spent with him stays with you forever.
The film can perhaps be considered an improvement on the book itself. Congressman Lewis, who was the novel's villain due to his opposition to Lord Darlington's amateurish interest in international affairs, becomes Stevens's new employer in the film, and symbolizes the beginning of Stevens's newly-found peace of mind. The screenplay seamlessly unites the apparently unconnected flashbacks: The description of Stevens's trip is kept to a minimum, and we hardly notice when the flashbacks begin or end. Shortly before Stevens meets Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, for the first time in nearly twenty years, the flashbacks stop altogether, and the final fifteen minutes take place in the present, but it is done so smoothly that the cohesion of the overall story is never threatened.
Nevertheless, the screenplay has a few minor flaws, most of which can be linked to the original novel. The first element that comes to mind is the fact that Lord Darlington is not an ordinary employer. He is also involved in international politics when most of the nobility would have felt unconcerned by these matters. By making Lord Darlington an unknowing pawn of the Nazis, we are provided with an excellent reason why Stevens should, in fact must, start reassessing his own loyalty towards his former employer. In the novel, Kazuo Ishiguro perfectly blended politics and the repressed emotions, but in the film, the political aspect is constantly downplayed, and what is left of it seems of little importance to the story. The only other flaw with the screenplay is that all important events seem to occur at the same time: Stevens's father's death occurs during Lord Darlington's conference with distinguished foreign guests and Miss Kenton resigns the same evening as Prime Minister Chamberlain and the German ambassador in England meet at Darlington Hall.
The film also compresses the time span of the novel, and this leads to few ambiguous situations, mostly due to the change in international politics. Lord Darlington's first conference, set in 1923 in the novel, takes place in 1935 in the film. While the German situation appeared desperate in 1923 due to the uncontrolled inflation and depression the country was facing, and to the French occupation of the valley of the Ruhr following the German government's default on the exorbitant reparation payments imposed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, by 1935, Hitler had been in power for two years, Germany was pulling itself out of the Great Depression, and was quickly rearming. While the rest of Western Europe first welcomed Hitler as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and Bolshevik elements in Germany, by 1935, there were clear signs that Hitler could eventually become a threat to Europe. What the change of setting does is transform Lord Darlington from a good-natured man acting out of compassion for Germany into an extremely naive man who, given his interest in international politics, should have known better. Nevertheless, this choice of reducing the time span is comprehensible (it would have been nearly impossible to convincingly make Emma Thompson look thirty-five years older when Stevens meets her again in 1956), and Lord Darlington's political choice is easily forgiven, as the aristocrat was merely the embodiment of the hope in British political circles that war with Germany could be avoided. Remember the irony of the photograph of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain holding the agreement signed by Hitler in Munich in September 1938?
The exact year Stevens and Miss Kenton meet again in the late fifties is also open to contention. While the book made clear that Stevens's trip took place in 1956, the film is not as specific. A few clues are given out to suggest a particular year. When Stevens and Mrs. Benn meet in a restaurant, they recall that it is their first meeting in slightly over twenty years. As Miss Kenton left Darlington Hall when the Czechoslovakian crisis was in the news, in 1938, we can assume that their new meeting takes place in or shortly after 1958. However, Stevens plans to meet her on "Thursday, the third of October", and there is only one year in the late 1950's in which that date fell on a Thursday: 1957. It is only one of the small details which undermine the credibility of the picture's historical setting.
Before Merchant Ivory became involved in the film, producers Mike Nichols (who was also to direct) and John Calley had assigned the screenplay adaptation to Harold Pinter, and were thinking about casting Jeremy Irons and Merryl Streep as Stevens and Miss Kenton. At approximately the same time as Nichols was beginning to become reluctant regarding the film Merchant and Ivory approached Columbia about the project. When it was officially assigned to them, the screenplay was rewritten by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and the main roles were assigned to Hopkins and Thompson, who had both played major roles in Merchant Ivory's previous film, the critically acclaimed "Howards End" (1992). Had it not been for this film, it would have been almost impossible to imagine Hopkins playing Stevens. After all, we remember the actor for his hammy portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), and the subtlety and discretion required for the part of Stevens might appear to be beyond Hopkins's reach. Nevertheless, Hopkins truly manages to bring this introverted character to life. The greatest danger with the part was to become too introverted, which would make the character become unintentionally funny. After all, butlers have been parodied for years, but here the subject is entirely serious. Any overacting by Hopkins could destroy the credibility of the character, but thankfully, there is perhaps only one scene, in which Stevens talks to his bed-stricken father, where Hopkins appears to be over the top. Emma Thompson's outspoken Miss Kenton is the perfect match for Stevens's apparent impassivity. The two together make every moment count, and every opportunity is taken. The best example is the famous scene where Miss Kenton tries to discover what kind of book Stevens is reading -- a love story. It is at this moment that Stevens comes the closest to expressing his feelings, but he does not. Only the actors (and the music) could make the tension of the moment fully palpable -- and they do.
The supporting cast is equally impressive. James Fox was an excellent choice to play Lord Darlington, a man who comes across as cold and aloof because of his rank but concerned by the political climate of his day. Christopher Reeve as Congressman Lewis is, in every way, the antithesis of Lord Darlington: a self-made man who is also convivial. Hugh Grant as Lord Darlington's godson, Reginald Cardinal, and Peter Vaughan as Stevens's father, provide strong performances.
The music for "The Remains of the Day" was composed by regular Merchant Ivory composer Richard Robbins, and perfectly fits the subject. Robbins's score follows a pattern which he had also used in "Howards End" -- a few notes are constantly repeated in the background, with some more music piled on top of it (the best example is provided during the opening credits). Robbins said that the repetition of the short theme evoked the passing of time, but the music also represents, in a way, Stevens's character: The butler is a man whose life is, in fact, a routine, a series of well-timed moments, filled with the same chores dutifully executed, and repeated with mechanical precision day after day, all in the name of tradition. It is the small theme which carries the music forward, just as it is Stevens who carries the film forward, and these relatively discreet, unobtrusive few notes perfectly match Hopkins's minimalist performance, as well as create a sense of tension in the film.
The direction by James Ivory took every advantage to show the splendor of the old English houses the film was shot in, the various parts of which being amalgamated into a "Darlington Hall" which may very well have existed. The setting contributes to the success of the film, because it appears to be authentic, a quality for which Merchant Ivory productions are renowned. As well, Ivory's discreet direction is entirely appropriate to the subject. The director also made a few enlightened choices of scenes which should be left out of the film. In one of the deleted scenes which was supposed to take place close to the end of the film, Stevens bursts into tears as he explains his situation to a complete stranger. That scene, had it been included in the final cut, would have brought the entire film down. First, because the reason why we feel sympathy for Stevens is because we are never forced to pity him. With this scene in, the result would have been an obvious attempt at pulling at the heartstrings of the audience, which would have immediately realized it. This self-pity would only have destroyed any compassion the audience would have for Stevens. Second, because Stevens venting his feelings to the first stranger to cross his path is in complete contradiction with what we know of the character. Stevens's own definition of the word "dignity" (as clearly defined in the novel) meant that the only time which would be acceptable for him to cry would be when he is alone, definitely not when he is in public. This scene was a remnant of the Harold Pinter screenplay, and James Ivory wanted it out, but Hopkins desperately wanted to play the scene. Ivory, in this case, was right, but stars are known to have the unfortunate tendency to interfere in the film-making process.
Critics of the film have argued that unlike the book, the movie had completely left out the question of postimperialism. In all fairness, the political element, essential in the novel, did not seem to be the main concern of the film, which makes its inclusion, as detailed earlier, appear as almost contrived. Nevertheless, although the debate over democracy is only occasionally included in the film, Stevens's blind loyalty to his employer leads to the inevitable question of class in pre-war Great Britain, and although it may not be the emphasis of the film, the audience perfectly understands that Stevens's fate is a timeless allegory of the consequences of blindly bowing to authority and of conforming to a rigid social system -- that our lives can be wasted if we are not careful."The Remains of the Day" is a splendid example of how a book which is almost impossible to adapt for the screen, can be turned into a successful film because of sheer professionalism. Although the worst of the Merchant Ivory films (the team's subsequent film, 1995's "Jefferson in Paris", comes to mind) are essentially good-looking but empty, "The Remains of the Day" is one of their best. The depth of the story and the subtlety of its treatment are impressive, the acting is perfect, and the direction binds these elements together. The result is one of the most beautiful and moving films of the 1990's.
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originally posted: 01/25/02 04:46:38