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The Remains of the Day

“The evening's the best part of the day. You've done your day's work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.”

The Remains of the Day is not an easy novel. Its narrator is pompous and prim, and he makes decisions that are difficult to sympathize with. But by the end, I was crying for this man whom I had once so disliked. And therein lies the problem with the movie. Because it sacrifices a great deal of the nuanced emotion of the novel, it negates any deep feeling at the end.

Beautifully crafted with language that is sometimes astonishingly elegant, the novel, by Kazuo Ishiguro, tells the story of a man on a journey, both literally and metaphorically. Stevens, the narrator, has been the butler at Darlington Hall for decades, serving first Lord Darlington and then Mr. Farraday. Encouraging Stevens to take the car and have a week’s holiday while he is away, Faraday sets Stevens on his journey.

Stevens decides to visit Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, who was the housekeeper at Darlington Hall and a close colleague for many years. On his drive to Somerset, Stevens remembers his days with Lord Darlington and Miss Kenton and ruminates on loyalty, duty, and the passage of time.

One of the novel's greatest strengths lies in its exploration of memory and regret. As Stevens revisits pivotal moments from his past, he confronts the choices he has made and the opportunities he has missed. He realizes that Lord Darlington was a traitor to his country and that he gave up friendship and a possible romance with Miss Kenton.

Stevens takes great pride in his job and has very strict and somewhat old-fashioned ideas of what being in service means. In one particularly moving scene, for example, Stevens refuses to go upstairs to say goodbye to his dying father because Lord Darlington has important guests and may need him.

The end of the novel is incredibly moving. Sitting in the evening watching the lights come up on a distant pier, Stevens talks with a man who reminds him that the evening is the best part of the day as work is done and he can now rest. We’re left with the impression that Stevens is going to take this advice to heart and try to enjoy the remains of his day. And, we sympathize with the man who has confronted the emptiness of much of his past and has the courage to change.

The movie, however, somehow fails to generate the same level of sympathy even though the cast is outstanding, the acting is exemplary, and the cinematography is lush. But, in the end, it fails to capture the poignancy and subtle character shift in the novel that draw the reader in.

One of the most glaring flaws of the film is its pacing. As the narrator reminisces, the novel creeps up on you, making you care before you realize it is happening. This level of introspection and self-realization would be almost impossible to film. Several scenes from the book lose their magic in the film because we do not see them through the lens of Steven’s memories. In the novel, language shifts as Stevens realizes the consequences of his choices. But the film loses the power of having this shift in Stevens’ language underscore the shift in his feelings.

Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Stevens is fairly true to the novel, and he manages to convey repressed emotion beautifully. But, the film character loses sympathy as we are unable to access his inner monologue. Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton is also outstanding, but unfortunately the film character does not have the subtlety of the novel’s Miss Kenton. Hopkins and Thompson are supported by one of the most outstanding casts in English film: James Fox, Hugh Grant, Christopher Reeve, and many other instantly recognizable actors.

As this is a Merchant Ivory film, you can expect beautiful direction and lush views of the English countryside, with a manor house for the ages. You won’t be let down.

This is not a terrible film. Many believe it is a classic, the best that Merchant Ivory ever did. I may have believed it as well if I had watched the film before I read the book. The book allows us to accompany a man on a journey late in his life as he restructures his past, something the film was just unable to achieve.

1 comment:

  1. I admired this film when I saw it years ago and I'm sure I'd enjoy it again. You have to be in the right mood for a Merchant Ivory movie... I haven't read the novel yet (but it's on my bookshelf for whenever I get to it), but I have read other Ishiguro novels. I liked the film adaptation of Never Let Me Go, but felt that the book was so much deeper and conveyed so much more. He's a truly great writer. Thanks for the reminder.


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