As of today, Indian producer Ismail Merchant and American director- screenwriter James Ivory have raised their cumulative artistry to eternal heights of cinematic collaboration, adorning a global filmography much before the term ‘global’ translated to an eminent reality of our times. With unique and distinctive tales set in a post Independence India, films like THE HOUSEHOLDER, SHAKESPEAREWALLAH, BOMBAY TALKIE, HEAT AND DUST and IN CUSTODY among several others, gave credence to the beginning of a globe traversing medium of storytelling that was incomplete without the expertise of writer Ruth Prabher Jhabwala. Her screenwriting credits became synonymous with the famed Merchant- Ivory trademark.
Together, they brought an elegant, pithy, observant timelessness to the cinematic idiom with such works as HOWARDS END, A ROOM WITH A VIEW and A SOLDIER’S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES to name a few. Their partnership is so impactful and definitive then that it can never become a relic of the past even as their storied narratives celebrating the power of memories and recreated yesteryears culled from novels and real time accounts justify their eye for details and human behaviour through the annals of time. I write about them because any of their feature films will be nullified of a presence per se without speaking of them as the collective soul of creative vision.
Mr. Ivory, on his part, has added further kudos to his long lasting legacy by recently bagging a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the exquisite CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, is one of the great exemplars borne out of this trio’s passion for period tales and memorable character studies, whether it’s of a nation, class structures or inherently decent individuals stifled by pre-ordained social mores. The title attests to the past where a present continuum was binding on all individuals. Now that I have watched it, I feel it will hold a special place in my heart for the longest time. Temporal distinctiveness doesn’t define it. The narrative is beautifully constructed to instill a sense of of humanity in an often fraught world, sort of like an inside look at personalities from within the site of a transformative era.
Set in the Darlington estate, a storied mansion belonging to the aristocratic Lord Darlington (James Fox), it is about the sense of compassion, trust, respect and interdependence between the master and his coterie of faithful servers that includes the eternally faithful head butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) whose aged father (Peter Vaughan) himself has been in the line of domestic duties for a whole lifetime. Mr. Stevens impeccably manages the household and the generational ideal of serving the upper echelon’s every need is part of his psychological make up, an unbroken trail which he is glad to contribute to with firm discipline and gentility. The adaptation here keeps it as a close knit unit that runs this important site in the English countryside at a time of great social churning, that is in an epoch when signs of a second World War were being broadcast on the horizon and the personal became political as Lord Darlington used his estate to host meritorious individuals of great intellect to determine England’s role in the times to come. There is no vulgate or obvious display of power wrestling either by the soft spoken and utterly gentlemanly Lord Darlington or by those who manage the household. There is a meeting of the twain in terms of common civility even though distance and dispassionate tempers rule the roost and Lord Darlington’s own ideologies may be open to doubt. An unquestioning strain of loyalty runs through the people and their carefully regimented inheritances of behaviour.
Those on this side of the English channel will find a welcome note of identification as the Indian subcontinent has perpetually run on the contributions of those who serve us and it is not really a rarity available only to the rich or upper middle classes but to anyone with enough finances to spare, having domestic help is a way of life ingrained in the culture, a very important marker of class and national identity, of an Eastern sense of housekeeping responsibilities intrinsic to majority of the households.
Lord Darlington, by virtue of his class and exclusive right to such a privilege, can afford this large, efficient consortium of people who are, in essence, actual masters of the house. From a post colonial perspective, it is an interesting common point that those who ruled over the commonwealth have the same heirarchy. The world is the same, that’s what we realize in the end. The subtle projection of these ideas add complexity and realistic approximation to this scenario. The finesse of Ruth Prabher’s screenwriting shines through here.
Another great part of this story is essentially one of unrequited yet passionate feeling as the female head of the housekeeping duties Ms. Kenton( the always wonderful Emma Thompson) shares a communion of the soul with Stevens. She is opposed to his always calm demeanour without nary a hint of anger as she is opinionated, haughty and not merely a puppet but ultimately is a follower of the decorum that binds both together. This relationship is so delicate, it feels that one wrong touch can break it. However, this is the paradigm of transcendental love, beyond set definitions and shared by those rare creatures in flesh and blood who we come across once in a lifetime as they exercise the dignity and passion to convey multitudes through just one look, shorn of lust or any expectant tide of passion. The writing strokes paint them as two different individuals marked by their natures.
Cue the scene in the room where Ms. Kenton asks Stevens about the book he is reading. The intimacy of that scene is all in the looks, the beauty of the expressions in that tiny space where she wants him to break the spell of regulations while he holds himself in the stead of passive resignation. There is not even a suggestion of anything sexual developing between man and woman as conventional screenwriting would have us believe in this kind of exchange. Rather here, the sense of acknowledgement teeters on the edge of a breakthrough. In this moment, the shared love between both becomes clear to the discerning eye. But something magical and simultaneously heartbreaking transpires then. In the scene when Miss Kenton breaks down in her own room and Stevens comforts her, this becomes tortorous for both of them. After all even though they can’t be together, their mutual journey will last for years on end. Ivory has a similar splendid sense of the invisible ties that bind us together.
The performers convey a silent storm punctuated by variables of decorum, freedom and stature. With Stevens, the question of loyalty and total belief towards his master blurs lines and it is a grey zone for the viewer but to him it is a matter of faith to Lord Darlington. We may reckon it as a typically British way but I think it’s a matter of circumstance and personal natures. Sir Anthony Hopkins generates a spectral presence and cuts an emphatic figure with the help of those glinting light eyes as the true anchor of the house. His clockwork precision is enlightening in terms of detached social mobility and class consciousness extending to every interaction. Emma Thompson’s interiority is spectacular too, mining her desires in a study in restraint.
Miss Kenton marries another man who adores her (Tim Pigott Smith) and makes a life for herself while Mr. Stevens continues to serve the Darlington estate, later occupied by the charismatic American statesman ( the wonderful Christopher Reeves ) who had befriended Lord Darlington since their heydays, even as age descends on him in all its huffs and puffs. Note the formality of Mr. and Ms. binds them to a perpetual cycle of conformity. Hence their reunion after decades apart in the final minutes is poignant and will make one misty eyed.
The fact that a dutiful Stevens doesn’t open up to ways of love to maintain his linearity of being makes us wonder : is it his utter competence, his inherent decency that draws Ms. Kenton to him? In other interpretations, he may be asexual or so bound by rules of his trade that the very whisper of companionship is something he evades. The same applies to Lord Darlington. Even when he gives shelter and work to two Jewish girls, he doesn’t display so much as an inkling of predatory, prurient stereotype. The men being gentlemen elevates this script.
James Fox conveys the incredulity, kindness and civility of Lord Darlington and the nuanced way in which he balances his vulnerabilities with the possible odd outcome of his loyalty to a German gentry that may be ensnaring him is brilliant. This is from the man who had a greater moral weight to carry as Mr. Fielding in A PASSAGE TO INDIA. For me, he will always be headmaster Fielding. Here, his name is besmirched in the annals of time but it is difficult to not feel a twinge for him as he may have only acted in best interests or was naive enough to think of others as allies. Fox’s performance makes us see the emphatic and conflicted man who seeks Stevens’ opinions in matters of politics thereby establishing his equanimity. This is a subtle prowess.
Now iconic names as Hugh Grant and our very own Cersei Lannister ala Lena Headey ( both in early parts) are there too as is Ben Chaplin and they are competent.
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY focuses on people who are forever trapped in the backdrops of their lives and gives them the respect they deserve. Within beautiful locations and grandiose structures, the people occupy a place in the heart. The mute internalizations here find a personal representation in everyday images . Memory and history come together to create a striking mosaic of static lives alive with a million sensations of love and compassion.
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is a once in a lifetime experience and must be watched for its intricacies and humanity.