Home > Film, Literature, Reviews > Film Review: The Remains of the Day

Film Review: The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day (1993; Directed by James Ivory)

It’s visually meticulous, narratively sophisticated, and impeccably acted, as Merchant-Ivory productions always seem to be, but tiny quibbles begin to gradually add up as I watch The Remains of the Day.

Tell me, Miss Kenton... would your first name be Clarice, perchance? Do you enjoy fava beans and chianti?

Maybe it’s because Kazuo Ishiguro is such an impeccably precise stylist of language and theme and metaphors that no visual adaptation of his work, even one as literate and faithful as this one, can quite handle the particular tone and perspective of the original material. Maybe it’s because as subtly, powerfully good as Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson both are, they are undercut at several turns, too. The former never gets the cathartic moment of ultimate emotional unburdening that Ishiguro gives his Mr. Stephens, and feels a touch too automatonic as a result (and the Stephens of the novel would emphatically not go into the crying Miss Kenton’s room to twist the knife as he does in the film). The latter seems oddly out of place in an undefinable way, as if she’s surely too clever and handsome to be a mere housekeeper (although Miss Kenton does escape the servants’ quarters, unlike the duty-bound Stephens). Maybe it’s because James Fox is just a touch too ridiculous an upper-crust dilletante for Lord Darlington. Could be all of those things, to similar minor extents.

But really, it could be that the aforementioned precision of the novel, and the subtly unreliable narrative voice provided by Stephens, can’t help but be flattened by the absolutist demands of the wide screen. Elements that were laid out with gradual technical grace in Ishiguro’s pages are just launched out there by director James Ivory, like so many paper boats on a duck pond. The extent of Lord Darlington’s dalliances with Nazi appeasement, for example, is not left as a barely-uttered mystery for long at all, compared with the half-acknowledged, half-justified truths favoured by Ishiguro’s Stephens. Even well-established prestige-hawkers like Merchant and Ivory can’t resist the lure of a good filmic Nazi threat, it seems.

Compared to most big studio productions, of course, The Remains of the Day is downright minimalist, not to mention miraculously trusting of its audience’s intelligence. But it’s still the cinema, and the cinema, by virtue of its very formal standards, must always be dragged kicking and screaming towards ambiguity. Merchant and Ivory were never much for dragging anything anywhere as filmmakers, so to speak, even when it might well be necessary, and there are times when it could be necessary in the case of The Remains of the Day.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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  1. July 17, 2013 at 10:24 am

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