Tuesday 28 June 2022

Movie Review: The Remains Of The Day (1993)

An elegant drama, The Remains Of The Day unfurls emotional power in a story of quiet service and unrequited love superimposed upon history-shaping events.

In 1958, James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is still the butler at the lavish Darlington Hall in England, a position he has held for decades. The mansion is now owned by former US Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve). As Stevens heads out to visit former housekeeper Sarah Kenton (Emma Thompson), he recollects the Hall's pre-World World Two glory years.  

In the 1930s, Lord Darlington (James Fox) is a respected member of the upper echelons, frequently hosting global diplomatic dignitaries. Darlington believes Germany was badly treated at the end of the Great War, and is inclined to support the belligerent ambitions of her new rulers. Lewis is among the visitors, and warns against appeasement. Stevens maintains strict dominion on the battalion of servants ensuring all events at Darlington Hall proceed flawlessly, and does not allow the failing health of his father (Peter Vaughan) to distract him. Miss Kenton proves her capabilities and becomes Stevens' confidant. She also believes a romance can develop between them, but Stevens resists the notion, maintaining an unerring focus on his duties.

Director James Ivory, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and producer Ismail Merchant bring Kazuo Ishiguro's novel to life with breezy delicacy. While period dramas can suffer from slow-paced stuffiness, The Remains Of The Day delivers surprisingly brisk and varied story lines. The twin timelines from the 1950s and the 1930s add a wisdom-of-the-years layer of soulful reflection, the nostalgic past harbouring equal measures of pride and regret. Meanwhile, the mix of estate management, stifled romance, inter-class dynamics, and diplomatic intrigue creates rich cross-currents for multi-faceted drama.

Jhabvala's script is pointed and purposeful, every scene adding character depth or incidents of note, the dialogue exchanges filled with couched sparring. Stevens resides at the centre, setting the heartbeat of the household. He sees and hears everything but carefully chooses what to retain and when to engage, sidelining personal opinions to avoid interfering with loyalty. Anthony Hopkins has rarely been better, never betraying Stevens' emotions but always hinting at the real man hiding within the exceptionally proper butler. Emma Thompson's Miss Kenton is a perfect foil, a capable and independent thinker not afraid to speak her mind and express emotions to the edge of socially acceptable limits.

The aesthetics find plenty of joy within the lavish interiors and exteriors of Darlington Hall (many estates were used during filming). Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts creates energy from sets full of details and animated by the movement of busy servants rushing between wings and hallways to satisfy every household need. Stevens' road trip in 1958 to visit Miss Kenton opens up the visuals to the English countryside with a side-trip to a local village after an automotive mishap.

Not every element works perfectly. Hugh Grant as Lord Darlington's godson flounders in an underwritten role, while Christopher Reeve as Congressman Lewis is supposed to represent emerging American global influence but struggles for traction. A French diplomat (Michael Lonsdale) is consigned to a buffoonish role complaining about his footwear.

But these are minor quibbles. The Remains Of The Day is a poignant time-and-place character study, where resisting all temptations is a prerequisite for excellence, and the reward for a job well done is to do it all over again the next day.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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