Title: The Remains of the Day
Country: UK, USA
Language: English, German, French
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: James Ivory
Writer: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel
Music: Richard Robbins
Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
A UK heritage period drama, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY arrives on the heels of HOWARD’S END (1992), also starring Hopkins and Thompson, a one-two punch from the hallmark Merchant-Ivory production, scripted by Jhabvala, the irreplaceable third constitution of the tried-and-tested creative triangle, from Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel.
The main character is Mr. James Stevens (Hopkins), the devoted butler of Darlington Hall in England, the film starts in 1950s, when Darlington Hall has been acquired by a retired USA Congressman Mr. Lewis (Reeve), and Stevens takes his days off to visit an old friend, the former housekeeper of the manor, Miss Kenton (Thompson), who left twenty years ago to get married, but currently is single and seems to be very willing to resume her old post. Meantime, the narrative harks back to the interwar years when they work together in service of Lord Darlington (Fox), who aims high to save the world from an impending World War but hampered by his naiveté ascribed to his rarefied noble standing, eventually falls victim to the callous opprobrium which would become his ruination.
A DOWNTON ABBEY urtext is the movie’s immaculate interior design and settings, Stevens plays up his restraints, which is inherently designated by the nature of his job, to an excruciating fault, that he is blindly subservient to his duty and onus, to the loyalty of his lord, averts any personal inklings toward the outside world around him or anything else actually, a working machine almost shorn of all the human emotions, among which in the cynosure is the building affection between him and Miss Kenton (or is it just a one-sided wishful thinking from her?). Encumbered by Stevens’ sacrificial self-discipline, Kenton’s more liberalized disposition wears thin until she finally throws up the ultimatum, and in a flurry of his dutiful engagements, Stevens detachedly refuses to take it up, which drives her away in heartbreak.
But, fate is magnanimous to Stevens and grants him a second chance, 20 years later, to claim his lost chance, only this time, he is not the one who has the say, and it concludes with a heartstring-tugging bang when they depart, purportedly for the last time, and the two leading players completely channel each other into emanating one of the saddest goodbye scenes ever to the knowledge of this reviewer, however schmaltzy it seems, it magnificently turns on audience’s waterworks, that’s what a high-calibre melodrama capable of! Mr. Hopkins is pitch-perfect as a British stickler of his work ethic and reliably conveys his subtle but empathetic inner feelings through his lilting diction and expressions, he might be a person we cannot wholeheartedly stand up for, but we never cease emitting our compassion to him. Ms. Thompson, is given a smaller stage than her co-star, but she is a formidable force of dramaturgy, holds up against Mr. Hopkins in every scene with glint of dignity, mettle and tenderness. Peripheral characters are mostly limited in a less upstaging mode, James Fox is the quintessential goody-goody British aristocrat, Hugh Grant gives an amicable presence as Lord Darlington’s godson, and the late Peter Vaughan is allowed to foreground his obstinate persona as the memorable Mr. Stevens, Sr.
The political agenda of that particular period (Britain’s stance of appeasement towards Nazi Germany) has been teased out exclusively through Stevens’ perspectives, but his minds are downright shut out, he simply does his job to perfection and gets satisfaction from being part of the occasions (theatrically, those important nights would coincide with several life-altering happenings as regards to his life), because his unswerving trust in Lord Darlington expunges him from worrying about things of that sort, it is an easy opt-out, which visibly haunts him in his latter days and goes against grain of being a person who possesses absolute individuality and unbridled personality,
A moving yarn of a radical occupational hazard, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY remains as a high achievement in period film-making, but loses a shade of its artistic luster in the light of its jaundiced approach of martyrizing its central character to state the obvious that is so unambiguous in the present climate.