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So Much Is Said Without Being Said

May 2nd, 2009 · 4 Comments

The Remains of the Day (1993)
Screenplay by Harold Pinter (uncredited) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Directed by James Ivory
Produced by Merchant Ivory Productions/ Columbia Pictures
Running time: 134 minutes

The Remains of the Day, 1993 The Remains of the Day, 1993

What the *&#! Is This About?
At Darlington Hall, a mansion in the English countryside, American millionaire and former Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) acquires the estate at auction and saves it from being demolished. Lewis inherits aging butler James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) who nobly presides over a staff that is a skeleton of what it was before World War II. Stevens accepts his new employer’s offer to take some time off and see the world. Lewis asks the butler how long it’s been since he’s seen the world. “Well in the past, sir, the world used to always come to this house in a manner of speaking, if I may say so, sir.” Given the keys to a 1937 Daimler, Stevens announces his intention to drive to Clevedon, to meet an old acquaintance that may be interested in returning to Darlington Hall as housekeeper.

Moving back in time 20 years – when the well-intentioned Lord Darlington (James Fox) presided over the bustling estate – Stevens is tasked with hiring a new housekeeper and underbutler when the previous pair elopes. Stevens makes it clear to the newly arrived Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) that he does not approve of housekeepers “going post to post looking for romance.” He remains wary of Miss Kenton’s youth. For the position of underbutler, Stevens hires his own father (Peter Vaughan) who has 54 years experience of loyal servitude. Miss Kenton observes that Mr. Stevens Sr. has been entrusted with more duties than he can physically handle. Stevens dismisses her concerns of abandoned dustpans or polish on the cutlery, until his father suffers a fall in front of their employer and his own son is forced to demote him.

The Remains of the Day, 1993, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson

Committed to helping a Nazi-led Germany get back on its feet, Lord Darlington hosts an international conference to promote this agenda. Amid the preparations, Stevens professes that “a great butler must be possessed of dignity in keeping with his position” and refuses to be drawn into voicing any political beliefs he might have in front of the Lord’s guests. These include the young Congressman Lewis, who tries to warn Darlington and his cronies that when it comes to what’s brewing in Europe, “The days when you could just act out of your noble instincts are over.” As for his blossoming feelings for Miss Kenton, Stevens keeps those to himself. 20 years later, he reunites with her and has one last chance to tell her how he feels.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Kazuo Ishiguro grew up in England, relocating there with his family when he was six years old. Of his third novel – The Remains of the Day – the author stated, “I intended the story to be one that could take off quite easily to the metaphorical sphere, so that people could actually apply it to their own lives, wherever they lived, whenever they lived. I wanted it to be universal, a human story.” The author added, “If I was writing a how-to book on How To Waste Your Life, you know, the English butler idea encapsulated two good, very decent ways in which you can waste your life. One was emotionally and the other was politically.” Ishiguro’s manuscript came to the attention of esteemed playwright Harold Pinter, who optioned the film rights while the book was still being proofed.

Remains of the Day, 1993, Anthony Hopkins

Published in 1989 to wide acclaim and bestowed England’s highest literary award – the Booker McConnell Prize – Pinter was inundated with offers to adapt The Remains of the Day to film. During this time, James Ivory was shooting Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in Kansas City. One of his cast members – Remak Ramsay – was reading The Remains of the Day and gave the director a copy. Ivory recalled, “I read it, started reading, and I liked it enormously. And I felt as I was reading it, ‘This would make a terrific movie.’ So, as soon as I got done reading it, I asked our agent at Creative Artists, Rand Holston, if he could find out who had the rights and how we could option the book.” Ivory was notified that Columbia Pictures was producing a film version with Mike Nichols already attached to direct. Harold Pinter had adapted a screenplay and Jeremy Irons & Meryl Streep had met with Nichols for the lead roles. But at $26 million, Nichols was unable to get Columbia to bankroll his vision and ultimately chose to direct what seemed more like a home run for the studio: Jack Nicholson & Michelle Pfeiffer in Wolf.

Then in March 1992, James Ivory and his producing partner Ismail Merchant saw their modestly budgeted – at $8 million – adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End become the best reviewed and one of the most profitable movies of the year. After flying under the radar of Hollywood for more than twenty years, Merchant commented at the time, “There is no indulgence in the way we spend money on a movie. In small and large ways, the studios are overindulgent. Instead of sending an overnight packet with U.P.S. between L.A. and New York, or L.A. and London, they have a person carrying the package. So they spend $1,000 instead of $50. A movie star wants his entourage on a film set. The studio leases a plane for $40,000. We don’t waste money that way. We often use the same people for production design and costumes and locations and hair and makeup. We make deals with everyone. That’s the point.”

The Remains of the Day, 1993, Christopher Reeve

Within two months, Columbia handed the production of The Remains of the Day over to the Merchant/Ivory team, with Mike Nichols and John Calley remaining on as producers. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala spent the summer of 1992 revising Harold Pinter’s script. James Ivory recalled, “It was Ruth who said in some interview: Pinter had written his script for a Mike Nichols film, and she now had to write one for a James Ivory film. She nevertheless admired and incorporated some of Pinter’s dialogue scenes, which were sharp and well paced. Contractually, both writers were to be credited, but Pinter, in a sort of everything-or-nothing mood, I guess, asked not to have his name on the film. He had been an executive producer as well, and that role also he didn’t care to acknowledge.”

Having both pursued the project when Mike Nichols was directing, Anthony Hopkins & Emma Thompson eagerly joined the cast. Thompson said of the material, “It sounds pretentious to say it’s Chekhovian, but, really, so much is said by not being said. Stevens and Miss Kenton discuss the most ridiculous things, like jugs and dust, and underneath them this passionate and tragic story is being staged. She falls in love with him, and that is her downfall, because she cannot crack his walnut carapace. It’s about one of the most important things of all: you have to say to people you love them. Otherwise they go away, and suddenly you find you’ve come to the end of your life, and it’s too late.” With a budget of $11.5 million, The Remains of the Day commenced filming October 1992 in London.

The Remains of the Day, 1993

James Ivory recalled, “Our production designer on this film was Luciana Arrighi, who’d worked on Howard’s End, which she got the Oscar … She has a very good, sort of sense of these houses and the kinds of things that ought to be in them and shouldn’t be in them and she’s got a lot of imagination. And it was she in fact who found the very, very important location on this film, which was the whole downstairs/backstairs part of Darlington Hall. That means all the kitchens and the servants rooms and the servants bedrooms and the sculleries and the long passages and she found those. She went out on a scout of her own. She went to a tremendous English house called Badminton House, which isn’t open to the public, and she went around in it and found all these untouched rooms, which a lot of them were sort of caving in, no one used them anymore.” Shot completely on location, five separate mansions would stand in for Darlington Hall.

One difference between the Harold Pinter draft and the Ruth Prawer Jhabvala draft was an omitted scene near the end of the film in which Anthony Hopkins’ character encounters a retired butler on the pier in Clevedon and breaks down in tears. James Ivory recalled, “But in the new script that was written by Ruth it was removed because I didn’t like it very much, and she felt it was a very sentimental sort of thing, which undercut everything that was in, or would be in, the film. Anthony Hopkins had already agreed to do the film, but when he saw Ruth’s new script minus that scene, he got very upset. He said, as actors often do about some deleted scene, that the scene defined everything, defined his character, was the movie’s most important scene, and on and on. He told us that he wasn’t sure he wanted to make the film if he didn’t have that scene.” Ivory agreed to shoot the scene and keep it in the film at his discretion. The director added, “But once it was cut out, Anthony Hopkins never seemed to miss it.”

The Remains of the Day, 1993, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson

The Remains of the Day
arrived in theaters November 1993 and was greeted enthusiastically by critics. Vincent Canby, the New York Times: “Looks grand without being overdressed, it is full of feeling without being sentimental. Here’s a film for adults. It’s also about time to recognize that Mr. Ivory is one of our finest directors.” Todd McCarthy, Variety: “All the meticulousness, intelligence, taste and superior acting that one expects from Merchant Ivory productions have been brought to bear on The Remains of the Day. This curious, cloistered piece, which examines the life of a very proper English butler who sacrifices anything resembling a personal life in total dedication to his master’s needs, is continuously absorbing but lacks the emotional resonance that would have made it completely satisfying.” Marc Savlov, the Austin Chronicle: “Some people will no doubt find the whole Merchant-Ivory ethos a bit highbrow for their taste, and this will prove to be no exception. Gorgeously lensed and delightfully structured, however, this is, in a word, wonderful.”

As big a hit with audiences as Howard’s End – grossing $23.2 million in the U.S. – The Remains of the Day was also nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay. The film ended up being passed over in every category. With the death of Ismail Merchant in 2005 and the end of the Merchant/Ivory era, many felt that in addition to being one of their most profitable films, The Remains of the Day had stood the test of time as one of their finest. During its release, James Ivory touched on this by stating, “The great books, the great novels, the great stories, tend to be about flawed characters, or flawed men who show tremendous potential in one way, but really in some other way are weak. That’s the stuff of drama.”

The Remains of the Day, 1993, Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins

Should I Care?
With 28 features spanning five decades – including The Europeans, A Room With A View and Le Divorce – the Merchant/Ivory caliber of filmmaking has become world renowned for its taste and literacy. It can also be said that their films are not above falling asleep in some pastoral meadow. That sense of narrative idle is nowhere to be found in The Remains of the Day, which among romances set in England’s rural past, is one of the most riveting ever made. Crisp, cool, tinged with humor as well as tragedy, the film works beautifully on a number of levels: as a portrait of a man’s wasted life, a document of England pre-World War II, a social examination of the servant class, an architectural study of a great house, and the architecture of a man and a woman whose environment keeps them from confiding their feelings for each other.

James Ivory directs The Remains of the Day with his senses curiously attuned to the means and ways of a vanishing culture, which the audience naturally experiences as if gazing through some jeweled spyglass. It goes without saying that the film is magnificently cast. Anthony Hopkins has never been better in a movie, sublimely hinting at an interior world frozen beneath the surface of his character. Emma Thompson – who like Hugh Grant, got her start as a standup comedian – not only gives as good as she gets from Hopkins, but brings an irresistible wit and sadness to her role. Seeing Christopher Reeve give one more strong performance before his accident is beyond words. Merchant/Ivory may have given up $50 million in box office receipts by keeping the book’s ending intact, but 15 years down the road, it may be what resonates most deeply about the film. Tony Pierce-Roberts and Richard Robbins rendered the lavish cinematography and mesmerizing musical score, respectively.

© Joe Valdez

The Remains of the Day, 1993, Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?

“Merchant-Ivory and Friends: On the Job Again” By Benedict Nightingale. The New York Times, 24 January 1993

“The Talk of Hollywood; A Studio Tiptoes on Literary Ground” By Bernard Weinraub. The New York Times, 3 November 1993

The Remains of the Day
(Special Edition). Columbia/TriStar (2001)

James Ivory In Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes Its Movies
. By Robert Emmet Long. University of California Press (2006)

Tags: Based on novel · Father/son relationship · Unconventional romance

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat Evans // Dec 2, 2008 at 5:19 am

    Beautifully filmed with a true sense of period, wonderfully acted, and ultimately very very sad.

  • 2 andrea // May 3, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    awesome. thank you for this. i love this movie.

  • 3 Yojimbo_5 // May 5, 2009 at 9:11 am

    “It can also be said that their films are not above falling asleep in some pastoral meadow.”

    Wonderful way of saying it; made me smile, it did.

    “Remains of the Day,” like “Howard’s End” vibrates with an inner tension of what-might-be which heats up what could have been a glacial movie. It also helps that Thompson is one of those artists who is unafraid of portraying comedy in tragedy and the reverse. And Hopkins is singularly committed to betray neither in his portrayal—which is all about the outward appearance of calm efficiency—A Master’s performance. I actually found my leg bouncing in tension at this movie, something that only occurs in well-done action sequences.

    So, I’m curious, Joe: Do you have what you’re going to publish planned out well in advance and just match up similar films, or are you just writing what comes up in the mood of your movie-watching habits?

  • 4 Joe Valdez // May 5, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Patricia: I think there should be a new rule that directors should seek out material that studies a culture foreign to their own. James Ivory is just one of several directors – Robert Altman and Alfonso Cuarón are others – who did impeccable work on movies examining British culture. And because of this movie, I will never let the love of my life get away on a bus or any other form of public transportation without saying something.

    Andrea: Thanks for commenting! And you’re welcome. Now that I have an article on Master and Commander to go with this one, I am slowly making my way through your favorite movies of all time.

    Jim: I can’t say any more about this spellbinding flick except that romance does not always have to be cute heroines taking a pratfall or happily-ever-after. The British experience is less romantic at times, more stoic and much more memorable. As for my review queue, I’m always looking for watch at least two movies back-to-back with similar themes, living vicariously through the management of the New Beverly Cinema.

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