Remains of the Day: Ivory’s Tale of Upstairs Downstairs

British actors Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson have been darlings of the art-house public ever since they teamed together in the surprise hit, Howards End, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s classic novel.
Both performers have won prestigious prizes, including the most coveted Oscar Award. Hopkins and Thompson are now seen together for the first time in James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s l988 British novel. An epic historical drama, Remains of the Day is as lush and sumptuous as Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, but it’s far more satisfying–and resonant–emotionally and intellectually.

Adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, it’s a tale of the British upper class in the l930s, the fateful decade between the two major wars. What makes the story fascinating is that Stevens, Hopkins’ hero, is a devoted butler whose veneration of his masters dominates–and later destroys–his personal life. Thompson plays Miss Kenton, a maid hired by Stevens and the only spirited person with the audacity to challenge him and bring to the surface the tensions inherent in being servants.

Director Ivory first read the book in 1989, while he was shooting Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, in Kansas City. “I knew at once that I wanted to make it into film,” he says, “The story revolved around a classic triangle, with Stevens the butler torn between his loyalty to his dubious master, Lord Darlington (James Fox), and his growing and unsuspected feelings for the housekeeper, feelings that went both unexpressed and unexamined.”

The milieu, “a great aristocratic establishment centered in an English country house seen from the perspective of the staff,” was also intriguing for Ivory. Ivory has directed a number of historical films set in England, such as The Europeans, Maurice, and the Oscar-winning A Room With a View.

Set on a large estate, Remains of the Day offers fascinating notions about the personal, behind-the-scenes dimensions of high-level politics. Observing a 1939 political conference hosted by Lord Darlington, the film shows most concretely how crucial political decisions are made and how the fear of–and fascination with–Hitler led to some disastrous results. It’s like scrutinizing history from a distance and from backstage, the kitchen and the servants’ areas, where most of the action takes place.

Ivory describes Stevens’ character as “a bit like a priest who puts his life almost on an altar. He serves his lord unconditionally, it’s a mentality we don’t know so well in the U.S., except in the military or priesthood.” Writer Kazuo Ishiguro sees his tale as “a road story, only here it’s a journey into Stevens’ inner self.” “You have to be alert to what’s going on around you,” adds screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, “You can’t just shut your eyes and say, ‘I’m doing my duty,’ and not realize what that duty involves.”

Remains of the Day points out some significant differences between the class system in England and in the U.S. Class orientation is much stronger in Britain, where there are far less opportunities for mobility. One of the most touching sub-plots of the film is the relationship between Hopkins and his aging father (played to perfection by Peter Vaughan), a man who insists on carrying on his duties up until his death. Stevens’ father is actually proud of his position, which also suggests why the British class structure has been rigid and slow in changing. The servants’ absolute acceptance of their inferior positions perpetuated the domination of the upper class.

Perfectly cast, Hopkins embodies the stolid, repressed and unreflective butler. “The butler’s job,” says the noted actor, “is just to serve his master and to accommodate these great dinners. Hitler’s ambassador comes to Darlington Hall to meet secretly with Prime Minister Chamberlain and yet Stevens always remains detached.” Indeed, when Darlington’s godson challenges the butler to comment on what’s going on, the only thing he says is, “It’s none of my business to know, my business is to serve.”

In Howards End, the chemistry between Hopkins and Thompson was so strong that Ivory wanted the actress for Miss Kenton from the outset of the production. Thompson is once again playing a role that enables her to display her sharp angles and tart common sense. “Miss Kenton is a very strong-minded woman,” states Ivory, “You can’t have Emma play anybody but an articulate and intelligent woman, because she herself embodies these qualities. It would be such a waste not to use them.”

Thompson says she was challenged by the complexity of the story and characters. She explains: “Normally, we see very simple screen relationships–usually based on sex–and that is not very exciting to relate to.” Thompson has been vocal in her criticism of the limited roles allotted to women in American and British films. “If we don’t represent people–particularly women–over the age of 40,” she reasons, “we might have a whole generation frightened of getting older.”

However, making a film about emotional repression brought loving, if also painful, memories of her childhood. “My father was very repressed,” the actress says candidly, “but luckily he married a ‘mad’ Scottish woman, my mother.” Thompson claims she inherited her healthy humor from her mother and that she had opportunities to develop it early on in her career, while she performed as a stand-up comic in nightclubs.

But if Howards End was Thompson’s film by her role’s size and magnitude, Remains of the Day belongs to Hopkins. Still, in both films, Hopkins and Thompson play such unlikely lovers that some critics have begun to describe them as the “British Tracy and Hepburn.” Neither actor opposes to this comparison; in fact, they are quick to point out that off-screen they also function as opposites, separated by a generation of experience.

Hopkins made an indelible impression, reaching his widest audience to date, as the brilliant serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1990), for which he won an Oscar. He’s not only one of the most respected performers in the world, but also one of the busiest. In l992 alone, he boasted a striking record of four movies, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Chaplin.

Graduating from one of England’ best acting schools, RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), Hopkins belongs to a rare breed of actors who have left their mark on virtually every medium: theatre, film, and television. His TV work has earned him two Emmy Awards: as Bruno Hauptmann in The Lindbergh Kidnapping and as Adolph Hitler in The Bunker. In l987, Hopkins was awarded the prestigious “Commander of the Order” of the British Empire. And he gives such a superlative, deceptively effortless, performance in Remains of the Day that he should earn another Oscar nomination.

Asked about the effects of the Oscar on their respective careers, Thompson says: “What does change after winning an Oscar is that more people in the business know about you, you’re more likely to get opportunities offered to you, and people are much nicer to you in offices!” Both performers readily admit “America has been very generous to British actors.”

“Fortunately,” Ivory says, “many of our collaborators from Howards End, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, production designer Luciana Arrighi, editor Andrew Marcus, composer Richard Robbins, were available, which is why the film was made so swiftly.” The special relationship that prevails with their favorite screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (who won an Oscar from A Room With a View) is based on the mutual agreement that they don’t interfere in each other’s work–unless it’s necessary.

This kind of familiarity also contributes to the fun ambience on the set of an Ivory-Merchant movie. Producer Merchant, who had met and begun working with Ivory in l961, cultivates his hobby–cooking–on the set. “Once a week I cook for the cast Italian or French cuisine,” says the producer, “and the actors, including the stars, serve the food.”

Ivory says that Hopkins and Thompson jointly create “such an absolutely magical world, onscreen and off, that I never try to twist out of shape what they do.” The two actors fondly recall the captions they each wrote under the continuity Polaroid’s taken during the shooting. “They were really rude,” Thompson, allows, “like Tony (Hopkins) once wrote, ‘I guess we couldn’t get Meryl Streep for your role, or something like that.'” And while both are extremely meticulous pros, neither liked to stay “in the mood of the character all the time.”

The Merchant-Ivory collaborative efforts are often described as literary cinema, because, as the director says, “our work benefits from wonderful authors. I’m grateful that I’ve found great books.” As for their noted respect for acting, Ivory says “Some directors aren’t interested in what the actors are doing,” but I’m not one of them. Actors who work in our films know that they’ll get respect and encouragement from us and that their performances will have integrity.

The Remains of the Day serves as the best proof to Ivory’s beliefs. One of the best films of 1993, this poignant and touching story features glorious performances by Hopkins, Thompson and every other actor in the cast.