Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Good Housekeeping: “The Remains of the Day”

The lineage of The Remains of the Day is unusual. It began as a 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishigoro, a native Japanese who was raised in England. Though Ishigoro’s first two novels deal with the nation he had left at age 5, The Remains of the Day marked his turn toward strictly British subject matter. Following the massive success of this novel, he has explored science-fiction material (Never Let Me Go), dabbled in screenwriting (for the Oscar-nominated Living) and won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, among other major honors.

 The screen version of The Remains of the Day, released in 1993, started out (to my surprise) as a Mike Nichols project with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. When the film passed into the hands of the Merchant-Ivory team, Pinter severed ties, though apparently some of his work was used, while Nichols stayed involved as a producer. The resulting film benefits from Ismail Merchant’s, James Ivory’s and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s comfort with literary adaptations, as well as their impressive visual sense. A film about a head butler and a housekeeper numbering their days in service to Lord Darlington requires a functioning manor house as its setting. The Merchant-Ivory reputation was such (after the artistic success of films like A Room with a View and Howard’s End)  that the filmmakers were able to persuade previously reluctant property owners to open their doors to cast and crew. Clearly, the resulting film is a triumph of logistics. Several country homes were used in combination, including Dyrham Park for the house’s exterior and driveway; Powderham Castle for some gracious public rooms and a spectacular turquoise stairway; Badminton House for servants’ quarters and a conservatory. On screen it all looks like one impressive stately mansion.

 Though Ishigoro wrote his novel in the first person, from the perspective of a starchy and deeply traditional butler, the screenplay’s basically third-person point of view hardly detracts. In Anthony Hopkins’ performance we well understand how much Mr. Stevens is bound by his own past, as well as by an unrelenting sense of duty to those he sees as his betters. Playing opposite him is the always convincing Emma Thompson, as a housekeeper who would like to be braver than she is. These two would make for a natural pairing, except that their basic timidity holds them back. This is best acknowledged in what the filmmakers call “the book scene,” in which Miss Kenyon briefly sets aside her usual decorum to playfully wrestle away from Stevens the mysterious book he is reading in his rare off-hours. The fact that he rebuffs her, for no very good reason, is a wonderful indicator of his habitual strait-laced outlook (is he deeply repressed, or just shy?).

 I first saw this film when it was in theatres, and best remembered it for that very English sense of stiff-upper-lip self-denial. What I’d forgotten completely is how much the film has to say about the politics of the pre-World War II era. Lord Darlington, it appears, has a sentimental affection for German culture. Though at base he’s a well-meaning man, his money and social position help him prop up the reputation of the Nazi party within his own country. What’s deeply disturbing is that Stevens, as his loyal retainer, will not permit himself to think independently of the master of the house, even when the lives of others (like two Jewish immigrant girls in his kitchen) are at stake. So he loses not only a chance at love but also, ultimately, his self-respect. A sad ending for one who puts duty before all else.


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