“I’m sorry, sir; I’m unable to be of assistance in this matter.”
“The Remains of the Day” was a Booker Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, first published in 1989. Columbia soon optioned the book for a film to be directed by Mike Nichols, but Nichols eventually decided against doing it. Meanwhile, Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory had also become interested in filming the book and with Nichols’s withdrawal and the duo’s own success with 1992’s Howards End, the film-making team was able to get Mike Nichols (who would co-produce) and Columbia’s blessing to proceed with The Remains of the Day.
When it came to casting the film, the decision taken was to go with an all-British cast except for the role of the American congressman eventually played by Christopher Reeve. The principal role of the butler Stevens went to Anthony Hopkins, who too had early on expressed interest in being involved. The housekeeper, Miss Kenton, was portrayed by Emma Thompson, another eager participant whose stock had risen substantially when she won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Howards End. When the completed film was released in 1993, it was widely acclaimed critically and very popular with the filmgoing public. It went on to receive nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, but in the year of Schindler’s List, Philadelphia, The Piano, and Jurassic Park, managed to win exactly none.
Columbia has now released Remains of the Day on DVD in a very appealing Special Edition.
Stevens, the perfect embodiment of the English butler, serves at the manor house of Lord Darlington between the two World Wars. Stevens adds two more staff members — an under-butler who happens to be Stevens’s father and a young housekeeper, Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton begins to develop an interest in Stevens despite the latter’s seeming inability to relate to anyone on a very personal level. Lord Darlington, meanwhile, is enamored of Hitler’s work in resurrecting Germany and seeks to develop an accommodation between Britain and Germany that would keep the peace while allowing Germany to expand as necessary to meet its needs. Miss Kenton views these events and related incidents around Darlington with increasing alarm, but is disappointed when Stevens does not seem to share her concerns.
Despite this, Miss Kenton and Stevens fall in love, though only Miss Kenton seems at all capable of expressing her feelings. Frustrated with Stevens’s lack of response, she seeks solace with a former employee who now plans to leave service and open a private business, and she eventually agrees to marry him.
The years pass and Lord Darlington is discredited for his dalliances with the Germans. Upon his death, the manor is sold to an American congressman named Lewis who had been the only one to warn Darlington of his folly between the Wars. Planning to move to England and take up residence at the manor, he retains Stevens’s services as butler. With the need for a new housekeeper, Stevens sees an opportunity to bring Miss Kenton, now separated from her husband, back to the manor. He sets out to meet with her, hoping to make up for the lost years.
The Remains of the Day is a film about a life wasted both emotionally and politically. For his whole life, Stevens devotes himself completely to the service of his employer, Lord Darlington. In so doing, he represses even the slightest vestige of any emotion during the course of his work until he is physically unable to express his true feelings even when they involve personal tragedy (in the case of his father’s death) or love (for Miss Kenton). One can sense the pain or longing, as the case may be, in Stevens’s eyes as he struggles to convey what he feels inside, but the conditioning is so strong that he is never able to overcome it. The same is true of any thoughts he may have on events of the day. When asked directly for his opinion on several matters of foreign policy, all he can say is that he is unable to be of any assistance. When confronted with an order from Darlington to get rid of two young Jewish girls working in the manor, Stevens voices no objection to either Darlington or to Miss Kenton when she expresses her own indignation over the matter. Stevens has given of himself so completely and unquestioningly that he has virtually extinguished any sense of self. When Darlington dies and Lewis takes over the manor, Stevens carries on as butler and at first, one might wonder why he does not retire to enjoy his few remaining years. The sad truth is that Stevens could not live with himself in retirement. No longer being in service would force him to confront himself, and the realization of how little personal satisfaction he has to show for his lifetime of service would probably kill him. The remains of his day must be spent, as was the bulk of it, continuing to serve another.
Lest you think that this is entirely a serious piece, however, let me hasten to say that there is also much humour scattered throughout the film’s two and a quarter hours. Some is very intentional (such as Stevens’s efforts to apprise Lord Darlington’s godson of the facts of life), but most arises in the form of our pleasurable appreciation of little scenes or exchanges that are quite serious in occurrence, but amusing to us because we are in the position of eavesdroppers. One example that comes to mind is the incident of the Chinese figure that Miss Kenton insists Stevens come and see. Stevens cannot allow himself to respond immediately, but instead closes the door of the room he is working in and observes Miss Kenton through the keyhole, hoping that she will leave. Another is the view of Mr. Stevens senior carefully tramping down the grass at the edge of and practicing carrying an imaginary tray over the stone patio where he had earlier tripped. Even events such as the exchanges in the pub where Stevens is spending a night or just observing English rituals such as ordering tea and cakes at a seaside restaurant or hearing the response of people walking on the pier when the lights come on bring a smile to the lips, not in ridicule but in appreciation of what was important in simpler times.
The Remains of the Day is one of my favourite films of the 1990s, a judgment perhaps partially driven by my enjoyment of British films generally, but mainly due to the presence in it of two of the finest actors currently working in film generally. The two, of course, are Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Hopkins here was appearing in the second of a trilogy of British films that he anchored in 1992 and 1993 — the others being Howards End and Shadowlands, both of which I heartily recommend to you also. Thompson had not quite as long a track record as Hopkins but had already come into her own with her work in Howards End and several films with her then-husband, Kenneth Branagh. The parts Hopkins and Thompson play — Stevens, the butler, and Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, respectively — are juicy roles indeed for any actor, but both seem almost made for the parts, so much do they become immersed in them. Indeed, in Hopkins’s case, Stevens seems to be almost the quintessential role for him. I find it hard to watch him in any film he’s made since, without seeing vestiges of Stevens peeping through. Thompson has perhaps the slightly more difficult role in that she has to play a fine balance between her natural desire to show emotion and the need to curb such displays as demanded by her position in the servant hierarchy. Certainly, neither actor has ever been better, and only came close in Howards End, suggesting that when they worked together, there was a degree of chemistry which elevated their work beyond even their normal level of excellence.
While I’m talking about the cast, I should mention several others who tend to be overlooked when this film is discussed. The principal one is James Fox who plays Lord Darlington. Fox is an actor who often seems to have a hint of regret in his face and that works to his advantage in this film. In period dress, he also has the look of the English country peer to perfection, as the tweed jackets and cardigans worn underneath suit him well. As Darlington gradually loses his influence as a result of his policy of appeasement of the Germans, he becomes a sad figure increasingly confining himself to his study and bedroom, surrounded by books and papers, and more and more abandoned by his associates. The sadness so often hinted at on Fox’s face seems to intensify, effectively mirroring this sense of an increasingly pathetic figure. Hugh Grant as the godson of Darlington has a fairly small part in the film, but it is an important one. As a young journalist eager to expose the policy of appeasement being espoused by Darlington and supported also by the British government of the time (under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain), he conveys convincingly the righteous indignation of altruistic youth. Early in the film, he also gives us several minutes of typical Hugh Grant flustered surprise and wide-eyed response to Stevens’s attempts to acquaint him with the facts of life. Christopher Reeve who plays congressman Lewis is a tower of strength both physically and figuratively.
This film is one of Merchant-Ivory’s top productions to date and as such has all the characteristics that make the pair’s films so appealing: thoughtful direction by James Ivory that draws out scenes to just exactly the right moment and with no distracting camera work; a very strong script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; a beautiful score by Richard Robbins; and excellent attention to detail in location selection, costuming and set decoration.
Columbia’s DVD release of The Remains of the Day is a Special Edition that presents the film in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer utilizing 28 scene selections. This is not a perfect transfer, but it is extremely good. It is crisp, clear, and well detailed. Blacks are deep and glossy and whites are very clean. Colours are beautifully vibrant. There are the odd speckle and a couple of instances where edge enhancement is noticeable, but none of these occurrences cause any distraction of significance. It’s a pleasure to see this film looking so good.
The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that does full justice to the film. Dialogue is rich and clear, and the music sounds full-bodied. Use of the surrounds seems to concentrate on enhancing the sense of majesty of the music; there is little contribution from them otherwise. An English two-channel Dolby Surround mix is also offered, as are French, Spanish and Portuguese tracks.
The disc really shines in terms of the supplements it includes. There is an audio commentary with Emma Thompson, Ishmael Merchant, and James Ivory that is a distinct pleasure to listen to. It’s a very chatty conversation among three individuals who appear to have had a very good time making the film originally and still enjoy each other’s company. There’s plenty of information on production details, location problems, casting, actor relationships, and shooting decisions. Columbia also offers us three documentaries: a new one of 30 minutes duration that includes new interviews with Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Reeve, and other cast and crew; an older HBO Making-of featurette which covers some of the same ground but offers the chance to compare the principals’ original appearance and views of the film with those of the present; and a new 15-minute featurette that looks at the policy of appeasement in the 1930s that is one theme of the film. There are six deleted scenes, all with director’s commentary, and very interesting they are, particularly the one on the pier in which Stevens reveals his emotions to a stranger. Finally, selected filmographies are provided for the main cast and crewmembers, as are two pages of production notes included on the disc’s insert pamphlet.
This is one of the top films of the last two decades. Dramatically powerful yet putting a smile on our lips from time to time, it features a top-notch cast in a picture with sparkling production values. Columbia has done full justice to it with a packed DVD Special Edition that looks and sounds great. Highly recommended.