Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Remains of the Day

Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day is the story of a butler whose devotion to his master has him cut off from reality as the estate’s new housekeeper tries to find the humanity within him. Directed by James Ivory and screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the film is an exploration into the life of a man who maintains his servitude while not giving in towards his own emotions that would later come back to haunt him. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant, Lena Headey, and Ben Chaplin. The Remains of the Day is a somber yet exquisite film from James Ivory and the Merchant-Ivory team.

The film takes place in two different time periods where a butler reflects on his life of service to a lord as he’s about to meet the housekeeper he worked with back in the 1930s. During his trip to meet Miss Sarah “Sally” Kenton (Emma Thompson), Mr. James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) reflects on the years he served Lord Darlington (James Fox) and how he had been very compulsive in his duties to his lord while not pretending to listen to any conversations or state his own opinions. It’s a role that he’s accepted as Miss Kenton begrudgingly accepts his cold demeanor except in moments where she feels that something had to be said. It’s a film that explores a man’s devotion to his life in service where the only moments he has time to himself is in reading books as a way to connect with the world.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, with additional contributions from Harold Pinter, has a unique narrative structure where it moves back-and-forth from Mr. Stevens’ traveling to see Miss Kenton in the 1950s and their time together serving for Lord Darlington in the 1930s. It’s a narrative that Mr. Stevens reflecting on that time where he was at his most useful where he would supervise everything that goes on in the estate while ensuring that everything is in tip-top shape. It is there that Miss Kenton arrives as the new head housekeeper as she is aware of how to act and perform duties. Even as the younger maids and butlers know that rule as well though some of them would have romantic trysts during breaks with the exception of Miss Kenton and Mr. James as the former often observes while the latter just oversees what goes on in the house.

The film also features a subplot where Lord Darlington would hold a meeting to appease Nazi Germany to the world over the unfair treatment they got in the Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of World War I. Though it has nothing to do with the main narrative, it would play into Mr. James’ sense of disconnect with the real world and his lack of opinion about the state of the world where he’s later confronted by Darlington’s godson Reginald Cardinal (Hugh Grant) in the film’s third act over Darlington’s meetings with Germany as it’s a crime of treason. Most notably as Darlington would later regrettably dismiss a couple of young maids because of their Jewish backgrounds which was a decision that Miss Kenton wasn’t fond of. It would play to the sense of restraint in the role of Mr. Stevens who could’ve done something but sit back and let it happen where he would reflect on that moment with regret as well.

James Ivory’s direction is truly intoxicating in the way he explores the world of servitude in a posh, English estate where a lord lives there and he’s got a large staff of people tending to the house. While Ivory would create scenes where it would play into whatever meetings Lord Darlington is holding, Ivory always make sure that Mr. Stevens and his fellow staff are in the background maintaining their role of servitude. Even where they would find themselves listening to some secret conversations and such but maintain their place as if they never heard anything. Still, Ivory makes sure that it’s a film about the servants where Mr. Stevens is the leader as he’s often seen in a medium shot or in a close-up where he has very little idea about the world outside.

Since much of the film takes place in a lot of estates in England, they do serve as a character in the film where it’s a place where the servants know where to go and what to do when the bell rings. The use of slow zoom lenses for close-up and some of the tracking shots showcase Ivory playing into that world where these servants run the house like clockwork and make sure things are intact. Even as the scenes in the 1950 where it begins with Mr. Stevens working with his new boss in the retired American politician Trent Lewis (Christopher Reeve) who knew Mr. Stevens as he was a visitor during a key meeting in the film. The house is still a character but a shell of its former self as it reflect the sense of loss and disconnection of Mr. Stevens with the rest of the world and in his relationship with Miss Kenton. Overall, Ivory creates a very rich yet heartbreaking film about a man’s devotion to service as he becomes unable to express himself to the people who are closest to him.

Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts does fantastic work with the film‘s photography from the way many of the house interiors in day and night are lit to play into its natural atmosphere as well as some of the exteriors to show the richness of the countryside. Editor Andrew Marcus does brilliant work with the film‘s editing as it‘s filled with stylish dissolves and slow-motion cuts as well as some jump-cuts to play with its drama. Production designer Luciana Arrighi, with set decorator Ian Whittaker and art director John Ralph, does amazing work with the look of the house from its library to the dining halls and silver room to play into the sense of richness that Mr. Stevens takes great care into.

Costume designers Jenny Beaven and John Bright do excellent work with the costumes from the suits that Mr. Stevens and the other butlers wear to the uniforms of Miss Kenton and the other maids wear. Sound editor Colin Miller does nice work with the sound from the way things sound during the cleaning process to some of the way conversations are heard from the outside. The film’s music by Richard Robbins is just marvelous for its very low-key yet elegant orchestral score that plays to some of the film’s drama as well as some of the emotional moments in the film.

The casting by Celestia Fox is incredible for the ensemble that is created as it features some superb small performances from Michael Lonsdale as a French aristocrat Lord Darlington invites, Emma Lewis and Johanna Joseph as the two German-Jewish maids that Miss Kenton hires, and Tim Pigott-Smith as a former servant named Benn that Miss Kenton meets in her days off. Other notable small roles include Ben Chaplin in a terrific performance as the under-butler Charlie, Lena Headey in a wonderful performance as the young maid Lizzie, and Peter Vaughn in a fantastic performance as Mr. Stevens’ father who would work with his son early on only to be stricken by age. Hugh Grant is excellent as Lord Darlington’s godson Reginald Cardinal as he brings some subtle humor to the film while commenting to Mr. Stevens about the trouble Lord Darlington is getting himself into.

James Fox is amazing as Lord Darlington as a man who tries to create peace between Germany and the rest of the world while later finding himself in ruins over what he’s done while he often asks Mr. Stevens on any opinions on his role. Christopher Reeve is great as Trent Lewis as a former American congressman who arrives at a 1930s dinner displaying his opinion about the meeting while later becoming Mr. Stevens’ new boss in the 1950s as it’s a truly fine performance from the late actor.

Finally, there’s Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in magnificent performances as Mr. James Stevens and Miss Sarah Kenton, respectively. Thompson has the more showier role yet it is told with such passion as a woman who tries to get Mr. Stevens to express himself while dealing with her feelings for him. Hopkins’ performance is entrancing for the sense of restraint and lack of emotion he displays as a man just trying to do his duty no matter what kind of situation is happening. Hopkins and Thompson have a chemistry that is just undeniable to watch as they showcase the sense of heartbreak and desire to be with each other but also the internal conflicts in the two as it’s truly some of their best work.

The Remains of the Day is a tremendous film from the Merchant-Ivory team that features outstanding performances from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Not only is this one of the best films from Merchant-Ivory but also in the way the explore a man’s blind devotion to his duties and the sense of disconnect he would have with the world and the people around him. In the end, The Remains of the Day is a remarkable film from James Ivory.

James Ivory Films: The Householder - (The Dehli Way) - Shakespeare Wallah - (The Guru) - Bombay Talkie - (Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization) - (Savages (1972 film)) - (Autobiography of a Princess) - (The Wild Party) - (Roseland) - (Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures) - (The Five Forty-Eight) - (The Europeans) - (Jane Austen in Manhattan) - (Quartet (1981 film)) - (Heat and Dust) - (The Bostonians) - A Room with a View - Maurice - (Slaves of New York) - (Mr. & Mrs. Bridges) - Howards End - (Jefferson in Paris) - (Surviving Picasso) - (A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries) - (The Golden Bowl) - (Le Divorce) - (The White Countess) - (The City of Your Final Destination)

© thevoid99 2014


Anonymous said...

One of my absolute favorite films! You captured it beautifully. Have you read the novel? It's also one of my favorites!

thevoid99 said...

I haven't read the novel though I did realize that it's written by the same guy who did one of my favorite films in Never Let Me Go. Thanks for reading my review.

ruth said...

Somber yet exquisite, i love how you described it Steven. It's one of the few Merchant-Ivory films I saw and I definitely need to revisit this. I think I saw this when I was doing a marathon of a bunch of Christopher Reeve films, he's excellent in this. Boy I forgot Lena Headey was here as well.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-I really hope Criterion gets the rights to re-release the films again and upgrade them for Blu-Ray. Plus, I really liked Christopher Reeve in the film as he stood out as this guy who knew that bad shit was going down.

Chris said...

Been many years since I saw this, I especially remember the ending, with the bird and the window, says a lot about freedom.
When I think of Remains of the Day, I always think of Shadowlands-another excellent film Anthony Hopkins did that year.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-That ending is great. I want to see it again. Hopefully a new box set would come out for the entire Merchant-Ivory series on Blu-Ray. I want to see more.