The Remains of the Day (1993)
Directed by James Ivory
Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Harold Pinter
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Christopher Reeve
Release Date November 5th 1993
Published November 17th, 2023
When I was growing up my perception of Merchant Ivory films was that they were homework. The names were synonymous with glowing critical reviews and awards shows. Merchant Ivory made prestige pictures and I was not a fan of prestige pictures. You could not have convinced me to watch a Merchant Ivory movie when I was a teenager. I would sooner give up soda and baseball cards than watch a movie like The Remains of the Day, a British post-war drama of quiet and methodical precision and melodrama. I would sooner stop playing Nintendo than watch a Merchant Ivory movie. I was as immature as any other teenager.
But now I am an adult. I have more refined tastes. I watch foreign films and I write lengthy articles about the duality of the movie All About Eve or the hypnotic beauty and pacing of a Sophia Coppola movie. Surely, in middle age I will have reached a place where I find a Merchant Ivory movie appealing. Surely, an Oscar nominated film like The Remains of the Day will find new meaning for me as a grown man. But, Sadly, no. I find The Remains of the Day as tedious and boring as I likely would have as a teenager. I'm sorry, I just don't get what anyone sees in this movie. I've been told by older critics and friends of my mother, essentially boomers, that this is the height of sophisticated drama and I just don't buy it.
The Remains of the Day stars Anthony Hopkins as Stevens, the head of the staff at stately Darlington Manor. He's a butler, just like his father before him, and he takes pride in his position. Keeping an orderly house and a mannered staff is part of Stevens' DNA. And he values employees who feel a similar sense of pride. When he hires a new head maid, Miss Sarah 'Sally' Kenton (Emma Thompson), he finds a kindred spirit. She also values an orderly house and a well managed staff and together they serve the master of the house, The Earl of Darlington (James Fox).
Our story begins just prior to the start of World War 2. Darlington is the center of political intrigue. Big English politicians come to Darlington to quietly debate over what to do about the growing threat of Germany. We will come to find out that Lord Darlington is on the side of appeasement, a side that will not fare well when the war comes to England and will be nearly wiped out once the war ends. The other half of The Remains of the Day is set in post-war where Stephens is now working for a former American Congressman (Christopher Reeve), now the owner of Darlington, and he's seeking to rehire Sally who'd left years earlier over Lord Darlington's stance on appeasing the Germans.
She was greatly upset when Lord Darlington welcomes German officials to the manor and prior to their arrival, he has Stevens fire a pair of young Jewish maids so as not to upset his visitors. The firing is a large part of what causes Sally to accept a proposal from a suitor, a middle class businessman who offers her the chance to join him in opening an Inn. The other part of her reasoning is being upset with Stevens for willingly going along with firing the young and desperately poor maids. The rupture in their relationship becomes the subject of the final act of The Remains of the Day.
My description makes everything sound more dramatic than it plays in the movie. In the film, everything is left unsaid. Motivations are communicated in a fleeting glance, the faint glimpse of a wounded pride, or in a modest but dignified misunderstanding. There is nothing wrong with that, per se, but, as presented by James Ivory's direction, it's all so understated that it appears that nothing is actually happening. The gentile subtlety of the storytelling is so gentile that it hardly registers as a story. The Remains of the Day is painfully dignified. A stiff upper lip is one thing, but the propriety of The Remains of the Day strangles anything remotely engaging or intriguing.
I had to be told by someone online that Stevens and Sally were intended to be star crossed lovers. This does not register at all in the movies. Hopkins regards Thompson with the restraint of a boss concerned that showing too much interest might violate H.R guidelines. Thompson, on the other hand, communicates an obsequiousness that has her barely appearing in the film. She's mostly absent after the scene where she gets hired. That's in part because the role is desperately underwritten and because the performances are suffocating under the attention to detail in the production design.
How can I explain the Merchant Ivory phenomenon of the 80s and 90s? You know those people who keep books by Charles Bukowski around, despite obviously not having read them? Saying that you like a Merchant Ivory movie in the 1990s was like that but for movie fans. People claimed to love and appreciate Merchant Ivory movies because those movies gave people the luxury of being superior to those low life losers who liked, ugh, Batman or dinosaurs or some such mainstream things. Merchant Ivory also has the mild appeal of lifestyle porn, opulent castles, servants, unimaginable wealth. Beyond that however, the appeal of an actual Merchant Ivory movie escapes me.
There is also the notion of Merchant Ivory productions being the most produced movie imaginable. The sets and costumes look great. The cinematography and lighting are supremely skilled. All of the technical aspects appear to be on point. You can see their work on the technical side and the lavish beauty of a Merchant Ivory movie makes it appear like a movie that deserves praise. Some actors, often the most method of actors, are praised not for great acting but for the MOST acting. It's very obvious how much effort they are putting in. Similarly, Merchant Ivory appears to be doing the MOST production design, the MOST costuming, the MOST of setting a scene. It's easy for awards voters to point to a Merchant Ivory movie and assume it's a great movie, regardless of whether the story is compelling or even remotely engaging.
The Remains of the Day is the latest subject of the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast Spinoff, I Hate Critics 1993. On this show, myself, Gen-Z'er M.J and Gen-X'er Amy look back at the movies that came out 30 years ago with an eye toward examining why some movies stand the test of time and others don't. It's a fascinating window into the past and the ways in which popular culture has shifted and reshaped over a three decade span. And we have a lot of fun doing it, even when we would have rather napped than watch The Remains of the Day, a cinematic nap in its own right. Listen to the I Hate Critics 1993 on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast Feed wherever you listen to podcasts.
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