The Remains of the Day

(James Ivory, USA, 1993)


There hardly seems to be a film critic under the age of forty who does not use the words "Merchant Ivory film" as a term of instant abuse.

Since Heat and Dust (1983), director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawler Jhabvala have been blamed for virtually inventing contemporary middlebrow cinema – pretty, literary, nostalgic, conservative and undemanding.

I have been only too happy to parrot the received wisdom about Merchant Ivory productions myself until The Remains of the Day shook me out of this bad habit. As with Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993), it makes no sense whatsoever to deride this movie simply because it is a lush, historical drama.

It serves to remind us that, before his wildly successful run of adaptations from great novels, Ivory once such made sharp, confronting and perverse films as Savages (1972) and The Wild Party (1975).

This is a harsh drama, often deliberately painful to watch. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is an emotionally contained butler, fiercely loyal to his master (James Fox). Jhabvala's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel skilfully weaves the three key relationships in Stevens' life, all of them troubled: to his politically deluded master, to his cranky father, and to a new servant who stirs his long dormant heart (Emma Thompson).

As in Joseph Losey's adaptation of The Go-Between (1971), these events unfold from a point in the future in which Stevens tries to untangle and resolve the mistakes of the past. But the great strength of the film is that it withholds any easy catharsis. The figure of Stevens, a largely unlikeable masochist, draws a strange, tortuous kind of empathy from the viewer.

The Remains of the Day may well be a highly novelistic film, but for once the intricate, intimate values of literature transfer exceptionally well to the screen.

MORE Merchant Ivory: Cotton Mary, Le Divorce, The Golden Bowl, Jefferson in Paris, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, Lumière and Company, Feast of July

MORE stately literary classics: The Golden Bowl, Mansfield Park

© Adrian Martin October 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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