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Of Lords and Lost Glory

Hopkins and Thompson keep house in the countryside

The Remains of the Day, directed by James Ivory, Merchant Ivory Productions, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson

At first glance, Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day seems the ideal subject for a Merchant Ivory adaptation. Like many of the E.M. Forster works which Merchant Ivory has produced in the past, The Remains of the Day takes place in the English countryside in a time of lost glory; each of the novel's eight sections, as in E.M. Forster's novels, even assume the name of the locale in which they are set. Likewise, Ishiguro's work is preoccupied with moral questions, just as Howard's End is. Compared to Forster's novels, though, The Remains of the Day is complex in construction, and some of the narrative techniques which add interest to the novel pose problems for the film.

Not the least of these difficulties is the fact that the novel is narrated in the first person. At the beginning of both film and novel, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), a butler at Darlington Hall, is about to begin a road trip about England. This physical journey is from the start linked to a spiritual quest. The narrator of the book, Mr. Stevens, does not intend to wander aimlessly about the country; rather, he embarks on a pilgrimage, resolved to restore Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, to her erstwhile position. He hardly even concerns himself with the twenty years which have passed since she last was in residence at Darlington Hall, and in a series of rather Freudian slips, seems to continually forget that she is married, and now "Mrs. Benn". He journeys towards her psychologically as well as physically throughout the film, recalling his interactions with her when she was indeed housekeeper at Darlington Hall, as he gradually approaches her current home in the West Country. The relationship of Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton/Mrs. Benn is not the sole focus of the film, however. Mr. Stevens re-evaluates his professional past as well, from the vantage of the present. Under the service of a new American employer in the "real time" of the movie, Mr. Stevens reflects on the character of his former employer, Lord Darlington, a man involved with the policy of appeasement and the Nazi party, whom Mr. Stevens had trusted and served completely. The two objects of Mr. Stevens' reflection, the personal and the professional, are shown to have conflicted at several points in Mr. Stevens' past, a time in which he invariably prioritized the professional. Now, though the search for a new housekeeper certainly provides a good excuse for Mr. Stevens' journey, personal motives underlie his expedition.

In the novel, the first-person narrative unifies present and past and a multiplicity of minor incidents associated only through the consciousness of the butler. In the film, the narrator ha been removed, and only tenuous narrative coherence remains; the attempts made to integrate the various episodes into the film are sometimes rather artificial. On occasion, when a scene from the past is introduced, an image appears in the center of the screen, and gradually assumes the foreground, almost emerging from behind the prior picture; at other times, a voice-over of a letter written either from Mr. Stevens to Miss Kenton or vice-versa, recalls a scene which then surfaces on the screen. In another misguided attempt to create unity, the American millionaire by whom Stevens is currently employed is conflated with another character, the American politician named Lewis. The congressman, played by Christopher Reeves, is endowed, in the film, with the role of sole crusader against the Nazis. The material in the book which suggests that his motives might be no less polluted than those of the other pro-Nazi characters, is deleted in the movie, and he is depicted truly as a superman.

This shift of emphasis in characterization also affects the rest of the film. The movie frequently omits material necessary for us to understand the psychological state of the characters. For instance, in one scene Lord Darlington appears enamored of a countess who awkwardly lip-synches a German song, while in a slightly later scene, he insists that two Jewish serving girls be dismissed; what is not made clear in the movie is that he dismisses the two girls under the romantic influence of the countess, and that, when, feeling somewhat guilty a year later, he attempts to trace the two girls. Likewise, while Anthony Hopkins makes the most of what lines he is given, many of his speeches have been omitted or shortened, leaving him with somewhat fewer dimensions to his personality than the Mr. Steven of the novel. Emma Thompson, with a profusion of facial expressions ranging from the ironic to the irate, however, seems to have retained all the personality of Miss Kenton with fewer words, and Hugh Grant is admirably genuine in his role as Lord Darlington's godson.

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While some of the repetitions which occur in the book are lost when condensed into the film, certain visual effects more than make up for them. Especially notable are the profusion of scenes on the servants' staircase, all of which, though seemingly minor, have momentous impact, as are the scenes in which Mr. Stevens is shown looking out the window. The lighting in these window scenes appears to exert a conceptual influence on the film, since the left half of Mr. Stevens' face is in shadow for the entire move until nearly the end, while the right half of everyone else's face is similarly obscured.

However, those who created the movie "The Remains of the Day" might have done well to apprentice themselves to the movie's main character. His concern for the small things in life, like precisely polished silverware and immaculate marble, and the vehemence with which he impressed this concern upon others, would have favorably influenced the quality of the filming and the musical accompaniment for the film. While the lighting may have been well-designed conceptually, the image on the screen is often imprecise and unclear. The music also accomplishes nothing more than a gesture. Two themes dominate, one an expensive, lyrical motif, which appears in all the places one would expect it, and the other a rapid undulating figure which may have indicated tension when Prokofiev employed it in the "Fiery Angel" but now only suggests spiders crawling furiously about their webs.

"The Remains of the Day" is impressively acted and emotionally affecting. In the attempt to include as many scenes from the novel as possible, some elements of connection and characterization have been lost. However, as Mr. Stevens himself seems to decide towards the end of the movie, the greater picture is sometimes more important than even the most glittering of silverware.

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