The biggest movie news this week was the disclosure that Harvey Weinstein, the man behind some of the most critically admired films of the past three decades, is a boorish misogynist predator who demands actresses, TV anchorettes and female employees massage him, shower with him, or, if all else fails, watch him masturbate into a pot plant. A longtime Clinton-Obama supporter, he's blaming it on a vast right-wing conspiracy, possibly hiding behind the pot plant, and has said he's going to focus on taking down the NRA (by forcing them to watch him masturbate, which is more than most arms could bear). It's fascinating to see that the same people who demand two-century-old statues conform to the mores of 2017 are entirely relaxed when powerful flesh-and-blood Hillary donors decline to do so.
So I suppose we could feature one of his sophisticated pseudo-indy hits, like Shakespeare in Love, or Emma or The English Patient or Il Postino... But, with the knowledge that Harvey Weinstein was staggering round the back of the set with his pants round his ankles, I was disinclined, and found myself in the mood for the good old days of emotional and sexual repression. So, by way of an alternative from the week's headlines, on Thursday it was announced that Kazuo Ishiguro had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His best-known work (at least to me) is The Remains of the Day, published in 1989 and named in 2006 as the eighth-best novel from the British Commonwealth of the past quarter-century. (I forget who came Number Seven.) Four years after winning the Booker Prize, it was turned into an upscale Merchant-Ivory production (which is kinda like Miramax, but without Harvey spraying the pot plants).
I enjoyed the book for a very particular reason. I don't suppose it was difficult, but the best decision P G Wodehouse ever made was to write in Bertie Wooster's voice — breezy, slangy, peppered with misfired shots at elegant erudition. Jeeves is fine in small doses, as quoted by Bertie, but left to run at length his discreet circumlocutions would rapidly transform him, in the eyes of his readers, into one of the all-time crashers.
That was presumably the challenge Kazuo Ishiguro set himself in The Remains of the Day: write a story told by a dull, fastidious pedant and try not to wind up with a dull, fastidious, pedantic book. The distinction of the novel derives from its voice — that of Stevens the butler, struggling in 1958 to make sense of a life devoted to the service of one of history's chumps, a Nazi-appeasing peer of the realm. It is one thing to be the fellow who called it wrong, but even more pitiful to be the unquestioning manservant to the fellow who called it wrong. I had some acquaintance with the long-serving household staff of Sir Oswald Mosley, and I remember wondering what they'd have to say if they really opened up. On the evidence of Stevens the butler, that's something all but genetically impossible.
The austere post-war British Fifties were not good for earls, whether Nazi sympathizers or not. Lord Darlington has died a broken man, and Darlington Hall has been sold to a wealthy American congressman (Christopher Reeve), who is chattier than Stevens is accustomed to. The butler is beginning to discern that he is not well-suited to a less formal world: he is no good at, as he puts it, "banter". Indeed, he listens to low comedy and topical talk on the BBC in order to acquire the habits of "banter". It is not going terribly well.
This is a novelist's device — a man who has learned to employ language as a means of avoiding feelings finds he has no language with which to express feelings. That's a tricky conceit to transfer to a visual medium, and, as often with Merchant-Ivory in the Eighties and Nineties, Ismail Merchant (producer), James Ivory (director) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (screenwriter) seem at times to see the period source material mostly as a grand opportunity for dressing up. So, for example, when Stevens receives a letter from Miss Kenton, Darlington Hall's former housekeeper, and takes a few days off to visit her, the filmmakers let him tootle around the West Country in his employer's Daimler rather than the more modest transportation of the novel. Anthony Hopkins in a Daimler just looks more Merchant-Ivory, doesn't it?
As he motors west, the film flashes back to the Thirties, and the arrival of Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) at Darlington Hall. Both housekeeper and butler are good at their jobs, but Miss Kenton is less emotionally repressed than Stevens. She has feelings for him, but he is incapable of reciprocating, and Miss Kenton eventually looks elsewhere. Stevens has submerged his own identity in his sense of his own dignity, and of his duty to Lord Darlington, played by James Fox. If you've seen Joseph Losey's film of Robin Maugham's novella The Servant, you'll appreciate that this is James Fox's second cinematic exploration of the psychological tension between master and manservant, and this time round it seems to be going rather better for him. (Harold Pinter, who adapted The Servant, also wrote the first draft of Remains.)
Lord Darlington fancies himself a man of influence. The great figures of the age come to Darlington Hall to ponder the big geopolitical questions - both his fellow members of the House of Lords, and important persons from the Continent who appreciate the, ahem, new circumstances prevailing in Germany... There are occasional glimpses of real-life figures here - the Prime Minister Mr Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax - but for the most part Ishiguro prefers his own characters, notwithstanding that in certain respects you may be reminded of Oswald Mosley or the Marquess of Londonderry or other figures of the 'tween-war years.
Stevens operates on the principle that his master can do no wrong: Ordered to dismiss two Jewish servants, he can't understand why Miss Kenton is so upset about it. In the novel, we understand quickly that what's really going on is to be read between Stevens' lines: Lord Darlington's a dupe, the butler's in love with the housekeeper. Ishiguro's Stevens is an engaging literary creation because the world is clearly not as he sees it. One would think that would be a form of story suited to the screen - to facial expression and camera angles and the score. But here it occasionally seems laid out like a dinner service, underlined by heavy symbolism (bird trapped in drawing-room is released through window and spreads its wings), and double-underlined by the dialogue which substitutes for the novel's subtler self-examination: "Why do you always have to hide what you feel?" Miss Kenton asks him. Golly, so that's what it's about! Why can't Stevens the butler just be a normal dude and say, "Girl, you are, like, totally awesome"?
Anthony Hopkins was mega-hot in 1993, coming off his boffo turn as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. It's not his fault that fussy, soft-spoken civility is more interesting coming from a cannibal psychopath than from a punctilious butler. In a sense, he's too perfectly cast. But it is in the end a compelling performance, one that makes you feel for a man who can't really feel. So, in the final moments, the audience supplies the romance the characters can't admit to, and thus the movie pulls off the book's trick: it's what's not happening that drives the plot. On the other hand, ultimately the great love of the man's life is not Miss Kenton but Lord Darlington: In one of the scenes set in the post-war period, Stevens denies that he ever knew or worked for the reviled Nazi sympathizer. Later, he admits he did know him, and admired him: Duty will not let him betray his master, even in death and disgrace.
Merchant-Ivory also manage to diminish the distinctly British perspective: pre-war as seen from post-Suez - a time when it wasn't only butlers who were experiencing twinges of doubt about the old certainties. On screen, it's mostly just the Thirties with the odd flash-forward to the Fifties and, as it's James Ivory, everything looks swell anyway. Drab Fifties austerity? Don't you believe it: the seaside resort, the Palm Court, the boarding-house, everything is blissfully untouched by post-war decay. Viewed through Ivory's lens, Britain is as reserved, deferential and impeccable as Stevens himself. Poor people, peeling paint, scratched cars, factory furniture, all know their place — off-camera. Indeed, in the Eighties and Nineties Merchant-Ivory sometimes seemed to see themselves as cinematic butlers to anglophile Americans: everything buffed and polished, exquisite manners— and they never give offense.
But I'm being unfair. The unwillingness to scuff up the Fifties weakens the story - because post-war eclipse was in part the consequence of pre-war errors. Notwithstanding that, the 1930s scenes capture a very particular milieu so well that it seems churlish to complain. And besides, as is Merchant-Ivory's wont, it's superbly cast - from Peter Vaughan as Stevens' father to a pre-Four Weddings Hugh Grant as Lord Darlington's godson. And, in the light of more recent period pieces, it is at least true to the period.
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