I Read the Book First: Merchant-Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993)

Having spent the last month reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, I spent the afternoon today with The Remains of the Day, starring two all-time greats in Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. This was my first experience of a film by the duo of producer Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, most famous now for a certain aesthetic of film production involving stately period pieces, often literary adaptations set in England or colonial India; The Remains of the Day, along with Howard’s End (1992) and A Room with a View (1985, both adapted from novels by E. M. Forster), is both a classic example of their style and a beautifully understated, if flawed, drama in its own right.

Surprising precisely no one, Anthony Hopkins completely owns this movie, to the point where it’s fair to say he is one of a small handful of actors who could have pulled this role off at all; his stoicism and intense, lofty bearing fully embodies the assumed mantle of dignity the butler Stevens wears. Though the novel’s several digressions on the nature of that dignity are compressed in the film into one conversation among the servants over dinner (in a sequence hampered by poor editing), Ivory’s camera captures Sir Anthony’s performance as Stevens throughout the film in a way that perfectly fulfills the old adage of filmmaking and other arts, “show, don’t tell”. Hopkins brings the same practiced stillness and decorous repression to this role that he did in his Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter three years earlier, though boiling just below that surface this time is seriousness of purpose and blind devotion rather than murderous intent. Though he didn’t win an Oscar this time out, he was nominated with perhaps the greatest group of all time in the Best Actor category, Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do with It, Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, Daniel Day-Lewis in In the Name of the Father (also featuring Emma Thompson, who accomplished a rare feat that year by being nominated for both Best Actress in The Remains of the Day and Best Supporting Actress in In the Name of the Father), and the winner, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.

Ivory’s direction also falls short in other ways from the “show, don’t tell” perspective, spending an unfortunately small amount of time indulging in the pastoral beauty of the English countryside through which Stevens travels on his vacation, despite explicitly referencing it as one of his main reasons for taking the vacation in the first place. The vibrant color and leisurely pacing its setting lent to Ishiguro’s novel was almost completely abandoned for the film, likely deemed an acceptable necessity of the process of adaptation; while its 134-minute runtime is already plenty for most audiences, The Remains of the Day surely would have benefited from taking the time to allow us to literally and figuratively stop and smell the roses.

I don’t intend here to delve too deeply into the differences between the novel and the film (and I can’t stand it when people get uptight over their perceptions about the “faithfulness” of an adaptation), so an episode lifted almost word-for-word from Ishiguro seems appropriate. When Stevens’ original employer, Lord Darlington, is entertaining a few guests and debating the merits of democracy with them, one of the men poses to Stevens several purposefully over-specific questions about international politics which the butler, of course, is unable to answer. Trying to prove that the common man is too ignorant to be trusted with any power in world affairs, the guest then considers his point well-made. Despite the straightforwardness of its dialogue, this brief occurrence speaks volumes through Hopkins’ performance, as he contains his character’s understandable embarrassment within an unblemished veneer of servility; he maintains his outward sense of dignity while enduring the indignity of outrageously classist abuse. It is a little muddy (someone more generous might say “ambiguous”) in both the film and the novel whether we are supposed to approve or condemn this action, or lack thereof, as both Stevens and Lord Darlington consider it wholly in keeping with his duties to take such degradation in stride (Darlington goes further in the novel, apologizing to the butler for the unwarranted attack on his intelligence), but by the end of the film Stevens comes to realize his faith in his employer was misplaced and there may be more to life than work; one may admire Stevens for his dedication and dependability but there are a few too many times throughout The Remains of the Day that his professionalism makes him almost inhuman.

The Remains of the Day is currently streaming for free with ads on PlutoTV but I honestly would rather have paid the $3 to rent it on Vudu or Amazon Prime because GOOD LORD I had to sit through the same three ads every time a scene ended.


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