I’m inclined to think that both Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins’s voices were made for narration. Or, even more frankly, made to be heard in any form, in any context, at any time. But their voices, each singularly delicate, precise, and calculated in unique ways, are especially fitting for the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, where you can see the aristocracy that reigns in films like Gosford Park and The Rules of the Game – or, more fittingly, other Edwardian set period feasts of the Merchant Ivory vein — looks stale and seems to crumble.
In Post-War Britain, where the film begins, the empty halls of Darlington Hall allow the echoes of the past to reverberate against the immaculate, if startlingly “dated”, floor, the pristine walls, and the vast space in general. Jumping back to the 1930s, Lord Darlington’s gorgeous abode is populated by many a houseboy, butler, maid, etc. Their stark attire is contrasted against the ornate décor, but even here there is a sense that, as Downton Abbey suggests, that the beautifully littered upper class is to lose its place within society.
It’s rather interesting that so much of the Merchant Ivory filmography is about these people living in such well to do circumstances. The strengths of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory is that this class disposition was often used as critique or commentary and that their characters were often drawn with a complexity, illustrating that money does not, in fact, bring happiness. The Remains of the Day seems to build on that critique, but examining it through a lens where the sociopolitical need for such a sect of people, even the cultural need, is waning.
That need, or lack thereof, is juxtaposed against the realpolitiks of Europe that are ever so steadily beginning to wake its people up. As pointed out by an American “gentleman politician” at a conference that occurs on the cusp of the war at Darlington Hall. Just prior to this, he congratulates Mr. Stevens (Hopkins) on being a “butler of the old school”, the term intentionally denoting a kind of bygone era. “All I see out in the world is loneliness, and it frightens me,” Miss Kenton (Thompson) confides to Mr. Stevens later. But this line, though it reveals its characters, who were once at odds with one another, as nuanced individuals able to find a singular kind of intimacy, is indicative of the aforementioned sociopolitical and cultural limbo that the whole of the Hall exists in. Outside of the beautiful building is a terrifying world with real consequences, the kind of consequences Lord Darlington has been hard put to confront, as indicative by his actions regarding young Jewish girls hiding out in neo-palace.
But what’s subtly acknowledged in this film is that finding solace in another when loneliness does seem to be perilous, whether literally, politically, or otherwise metaphorically, is that it is, in its own way, beautiful. Ivory is a master painter, setting his characters in open spaces, or silhouetted against the superbly detailed sets. The widescreen cinematography exacerbates this kind of internal claustrophobia, where one feels vulnerable in the most open of spaces.
But Ivory is also able to photograph small, intimate spaces. We see Miss Kenton try to tug a book away from Mr. Stevens, who refuses to tell her what it is. This moment, carefully illuminated by a nearby lamp, is fraught with tension – sexual, romantic, and otherwise. But this is a surface level reading of that scene: between the lines, the two fail to communicate or understand how to let the other one into their interior life.
The work of hospitality is an odd one: I am currently working at an inn in Provincetown, MA, and I am (usually) not allowed to listen to any music on my iPod or anything. I don’t have a uniform, especially one as strict or rigid as anyone working for an aristocratic family, but the tedium of the work becomes both enjoyable and terrifying. At once, it’s a routine that is easily to acclimate oneself to. On the other, because of that deafening silence, one is left alone to one’s thoughts. It’s finding another person on the staff, or something along those lines, which staves away overwhelming loneliness. It’s a safeness, though, that could be detrimental: the staff at Darlington Hall seem, for the most part, unaware of those important politics that are shaping people’s lives, peripherally familiar with the politicians due to their stays at the place.
Miss Kenton speaks of loneliness, but perhaps the reality that the film is able to examine is that, for some people, even in the safety of another, loneliness is – not unlike the gorgeous and unforgettable voices of Thompson and Hopkins – like the ghost that forever haunts the halls of the mind.
The Remains of the Day is currently available on a limited Blu-ray release from Twilight Time. The edition includes audio commentary with director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and Emma Thompson, as well as documentaries “The Remains of the Day: The Filmmakers’ Journey”, “Blind Loyalty, Hollow Honor: England’s Fatal Flaw”, and “Love and Loyalty: The Making of the Remains of the Day.”