Cynics might call it a sequel to Howards End. It does, after all, reunite Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in another Merchant-Ivory version of an elegant novel about the cruel inhibitions of British class society.
It, too, is a satirical tragedy of manners that revolves around a grand old house in the English countryside. And, once again,
Hopkins plays fastidious repression to Thompson’s lively compassion. But the latest movie by director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant is not adapted from an E. M.
Forster work—they have finally exhausted the Forster vein. It is based on The Remains of the Day, the sublime 1989 novel that won British author Kazuo Ishiguro a Booker Prize. The movie is slower and more austere than Howards End, with a less eventful story and fewer characters. But it is an immaculate adaptation, capturing the astringent wit and luxuriously private sense of melancholy that made Ishiguro’s novel so affecting.
The story takes the form of a reminiscence by a butler named Stevens (Hopkins). It is 1958, and he now works for an American, Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve), who has taken over Darlington Hall, the estate where Stevens has served most of his life. Borrowing his employer’s Daimler, Stevens drives off to visit his former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Thompson), hoping to lure her back to the manor. And in the course of the trip, the narrative unfolds as flashbacks to the 1930s, the heyday of Darlington Hall.
The Second World War is drawing near. Working for Lord Darlington Games Fox), a Nazi sympathizer, Stevens and Kenton
A butler’s fetish for order stifles his heart and soul command a brigade of servants. As the butler busies himself with arrangements for a series of international appeasement conferences hosted by his employer, he gets so caught up with his duties that he neglects his ailing father (played by a sepulchral Peter Vaughan) and denies his feelings for Kenton. Elevating the sanctity of the work ethic to a ludicrous level, Stevens never questions the morality of the men he serves, men who he maintains are involved in “events of the utmost importance.” Only later in life does he begin to acquiesce to his feelings, which emerge as a slow condensation of immeasurable sadness.
The screenplay, by Merchant-Ivory veteran Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, makes only one significant change to the book. She collapses two characters into one—the American congressman who visits Darlington Hall in the 1930s and the new owner who buys it in the 1950s. Unfortunately, Reeve, who seems self-consciously stiff as the movie’s token Yank, is the one weak link in an exceptional cast.
On the whole, the film is scrupulously faithful to the novel. But it also makes tangible an emotional dimension that is only implied on the page—lurking between the lines of the butler’s absurdly dry and detached narration. On-screen, behind the seamless propriety of the language, Hopkins makes his character’s vulnerability visible in the eyes, and in the smallest of gestures.
While Howards End was Thompson’s movie (she won an Oscar for it), The Remains of the
Day clearly belongs to Hopkins. He has the main role. And he gives what is arguably his finest performance. His Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was spectacular. But villains are easy. Stevens is a more complex character, an emotionally chal lenged Englishman who mis takes etiquette for morality, a man with a good heart that is buried beneath a pathological fetish for order. Like the current movie The Age of Innocence-yet another tragedy of manners-The Re mains of the Day teases excruci ating tension out of unrequited
love. It is a romance sealed with a handshake. Stevens and Kenton never even get around to calling each other by their first names. Yet they resemble a married couple. And out of their domestic friction, Hopkins and Thompson create real chemistry.
Their roles are very different from the ones they played in Howards End, Thompson stressed in a recent Maclean’s interview. “But in a sense, there is something similar about them,” she added, “the eroti-
cism of the relationship, and the fact that it’s based on tremendous attraction.” Thompson has often acted opposite her husband, director Kenneth Branagh. But after back-to-back movies together, she and Hopkins could become the next Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. “I certainly hope so,” says Thompson. ‘We’d love to do another movie together. But we’d have to do a modem one, I think. Maybe we’d finally get to kiss each other.”
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