THE REMAINS OF THE DAY takes place in 1958 as James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), a man of late middle age and the head butler at the sumptuous Darlington Hall, begins a motor journey across southern England to the West Country. The purpose of his trip, we learn, is to persuade Ms. Sally Kenton (Emma Thompson), once head housekeeper at Darlington Hall, to resume her old position and, perhaps, a bit more.
Most of the story is told in a series of flashbacks and we gradually come to know Stevens, Ms. Kenton and Lord Darlington (James Fox). Although THE REMAINS OF THE DAY centers on the relationship between Stevens and Ms. Kenton, there are subtle, but definite, political undertones in this film, for Lord Darlington is, of all things, a Nazi sympathizer who wants to prevent war. I've heard criticisms of the film because this subplot wasn't explored in greater detail, but I think Ishiguro (and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) wrote just enough. To have expanded this subplot might have been interesting, but it would have definitely detracted from the more interesting main plot line, the relationship between Stevens and Ms. Kenton.
Almost from the beginning of the film, it's clear that Stevens and Ms. Kenton love each other. While Ms. Kenton does her best, however, she simply can't crack the wall Stevens has built around himself, the one he's been taught to build around himself, for, as long as Stevens can remember, his family has been "in service."
Stevens is the perfect butler, but at what cost? One of the film's most telling moments comes when Stevens' father, who is himself a retired head butler, dies in the servants' quarters of Darlington Hall. Although summoned by Ms. Kenton, Stevens, because of his strict adherence to perfection in work, and his dedication to "doing one's duty," does not abandon his post at a gala dinner party to be with his dying father.
Political disaster for Lord Darlington and personal disaster for Stevens dovetail in the film, but Stevens might just be given the second chance that most of us never get.
The end of THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is heartbreaking, but inevitable. This is a quiet, sad and extremely introspective film, yet it contains extraordinary emotion.
Anthony Hopkins as Stevens is perfection. Although Hopkins must show us a palette of emotions, he must show them with small gestures, mannerisms and facial expressions. Stevens is a highly complex man but he is, above all else, a man who represses his emotions.
Emma Thompson is Ms. Kenton is also perfect, but don't expect to see a lot of her in this film. This is Stevens' story and, as such, it's Hopkins who takes center stage.
Christopher Reeve is very good as Congressman Lewis, both as a guest of Lord Darlington and as the "new" owner of Darlington Hall. His part is small, though essential, and seeing him active and healthy only adds to this film's profound sense of sadness and loss.
The extras in this DVD include interviews with Merchant and Ivory as well as with Emma Thompson and they are so good, they make it worth owning the DVD rather than just renting it. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is, at any rate, a DVD I think any film lover would want to own. It's absolute perfection and one I know I'll never tire of no matter how many times I watch it.
My expectation was that when I was able to view the film on DVD in its original wide screen format, all that extra screen space that normally gets cut away to modify the picture for television would be viewable again. I was mistaken. I popped my VHS tape in the VCR and my new DVD in its player and set the TV to show both VHS and DVD side by side (I'd been wanting to do this for years). What I saw surprised me. The VHS version does indeed remove some of the picture from the sides. What I didn't expect is that it has additional picture on the top and bottom that the wide screen release on DVD does NOT. The important issue here is that the additional picture provided in the wide screen film provides LESS usable information toward the visual translation of the film than the 4:3 aspect for VHS/TV which provides more real estate top and bottom. Case and point:
Probably the most important scene in the film is "The Book". Miss Kenton corners Mr. Stephens in his office and pries a book from his hands. This is the most intimate moment for the couple. In the VHS version the struggle with the book in picture can clearly be watched. In the DVD version the bottom of the frame impedes this subject matter; the book and her hands struggling with his. There are many other scenes where either props or architecture in the top and bottom of the frame better serve the nuance of the scene than what can be seen on either side of the frame. Specifically, desktops. There are many scenes were the actor is sitting behind or near a desk or table with many informative objects on it. The DVD version masks much of this information in most scenes, while the VHS version provides that extra bit at the bottom to show you what's on that desk, the cup of cocoa Miss Kenton is holding or the array of paperwork strewn on Lord Darlington's bed. In the final scene the painting, purchased at the beginning of the film, is hung in Mr. Lewis's new home. He says, "Watch the chandelier!" to the movers. In the VHS version you catch a glimpse of the chandelier. In the DVD version it goes unseen.
Sadly, the DVD release doesn't provide a choice of wide screen 2.35:1 or TV 4:3 in its menu options. You get wide screen and that's it. What you will get on DVD is better picture definition, better color, and some pretty good documentary featurettes. Emma Thompson, James Ivory, and producer Ishmail Merchant also dub over the film for interesting optional commentary.
So, for a more complete story visually, watch Remains of the Day on VHS tape. For better picture and sound quality, check out the DVD.
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