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Rental Review: The Remains of the Day (1993)

August 22, 2011
  • Dir. James Ivory
  • Released by Columbia
  • Based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel
  • Rating: ***

Howards End II, anyone? The similarities are hard to deny: a Merchant Ivory Production starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. However, whereas that 1992 film was based on a E.M. Forster novel from 1910, The Remains of the Day takes its plot from a 1989 novel by Japanase-British author Kazuo Ishiguro. We’re still firmly in British territory, though, no matter when the book was written (it is set largely before World War II, so the release date doesn’t quite matter).

Ishiguro’s novel is nothing short of excellent. Both the book and the film follow Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), a butler obsessed with professional dignity. He serves as the narrator of the novel, and his worldview is often quite amusing; the first-person perspective gives the book a wry sense of humor that plays well against its more melancholy elements. The film fails to replicate the book’s tone and thus comes off as very much a solemn period drama, unfortunately.

This is what I like to call the Lolita remake mentality of the 1990s. Anyone who has read the Nabokov novel or the Kubrick film knows that the material has a sharp wit that plays against the unsettling subject matter. The remake removed that humor, and thus the disturbing romance had no tonal counterweight. The same thing occurs here with Stevens’s failure to value his personal life, which in the book is alternatively funny and tragic.

However, the movie captures the parallels between Stevens’s personal delusions and the wrong-headedness of British aristocrats negotiating with the Third Reich in the years preceding the war quite effectively, and the performances by Hopkins, Thompson, Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant, and James Fox nail their literary counterparts well enough to leave little room for complaint. Scenes from the novel reach the big screen with little alteration (except, as previously noted, the absence of the humor that accompanied them).

Audiences unfamiliar with the book will likely enjoy the film, and Ishiguro fans will be just as happy with the film’s strengths as they will be disappointed with its weaknesses. The Remains of the Day is a decent movie based on a truly great novel, and I would more strongly recommend the source material over the motion picture. Even so, the movie is extremely well-made, so there is really little reason to avoid it.

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From → Film Criticism

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