The Remains of The Day (1993), or Merchant-Ivory’s Glimmering Jewel

23 01 2009
Loyalty And Desire

Loyalty And Desire

Greetings, everyone! Welcome to 90’s week! But before we tear into the review, I would just like to explain the production company that is Merchant Ivory. In the early sixties, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, a director and a producer respectively, started a partnership that would change everything about film. They were going to do something more amazing than either of them would have imagined; they would make movies smart again. You see, Merchant Ivory films, since their inception, have been the caviar of the film industry, the standard of excellence. Their movies have become a staple in the art-house experience, and not one of their films have failed to work on a more intellectual level than your average film. Their scripts come from literature, not a joke on the back of a napkin. Their stable of actors include Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, not Verne Troyer Brigitte Nielsen. They are wonderful films all, and I wish I had more time to do a full post on why Merchant Ivory is so good, but for now I will just say that they make films the way more films should be made. And, arguably, one of their most famous films is today’s selection for 90′ week, The Remains of The Day, starring the aforementioned Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

It is the 1950’s in a sleepy English manor. Mr. Stevens is the butler of Darlington Hall, the aforementioned mansion, which is unoccupied and soon to be sold to a retired American senator. As the preparations begin to accommodate the new owner, Stevens receives a letter from a one Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton also used to work at the manor twenty years prior, when the manor was active under its former owner the Lord Darlington. Back then, before the second World War, she was a maid who worked with Stevens, and the two worked together very closely. Stevens is introduced as a cold, emotionless man with little regard for anything or anyone that does not involve his duties and his loyalty to Lord Darlington. During their years together, Miss Kenton tries to warm him to her, enamoured with the silent, dutiful man. But Stevens is so distant. He does not feel anything. All he can do is serve. No matter what Miss Kenton does, she cannot break through his barriers, and so after one final clash with him, she leaves with another man. They had not seen each other since. But with this letter, could there be one final chance at love for these two? Can Stevens change who he is, after the throes of regret regarding a life spent in servitude?

James Ivory is an artisan director. Everything he does is crafted in such a way that makes you notice just how much talent he has. I consider him to be the peacock of the art-house film; a modest one at that, oxymoronically. Another technical whiz, the filters on the camera reflect a self-confined, claustrophobic life lived in an enormous house. The music, deservedly, was nominated for an Academy Award. It is the soundtrack to Stevens’s life; tight, proper, and appropriate at all times. The screenplay was written by long-time collaborator of Merchant-Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and it holds up very well, as usual, to the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. She really captures the literary mind in a movie, and I enjoyed that immensely as a reader.

Do I even need to say it? Well, I’m going to: Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are wondrous. They are such a tragic couple, they steal the show away from all the other artistic aspects of this film. Some of the scenes they have are so well crafted. When she tells him how afraid she is to be alone and he looks at her and tells her, “You mean a great deal to this house”, it breaks your heart because you know they want to be together but he was just too far away from everyone, even himself, to say anything. Wonderful performances all around, including a meager role for the late Christopher Reeves as the American senator, Mr. Lewis.

And one thing that really captures the period and the mood are the sets. An amalgam of many different English mansions, Darlington Manor is so huge, so lush and splendorous that you’ll actually believe that, of course, almost nobody lives there. it is almost another character, the house; it eats people alive, emotions and all.

All together, a great showing for the Merchant-Ivory team. This one captivates me with its self-imposed loneliness. It’s a reminder to us all to not only love, but admit to our love. And it is also a great example of 90’s art-house, although some of the more independent, feistier films are much darker and abstract. But if you are a sucker for classical story structure, period pieces, or just dead-on performances, you have come to the right place. I hope you are as deeply touched as I was. I give The Remains of The Day 9 emotionally inhibited butlers out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow we go back to a time not very long ago in a galaxy not very far away at all. Could you guess from those awful and corny clues what the next movie might be? Well, if you said Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, congratulations: you are not living under a rock!