Among the more glaring misrepresentations about current films – that Robert Altman's Short Cuts lacks compassion, that Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing is classic Shakespeare, that Abel Ferrara's Dangerous Game proves Madonna can act – is this dumb notion: that producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala turn snob books into cinematic snores. One look at their vivid adaptations of E.M. Forster (Howards End, A Room With a View)and Henry James (The Bostonians, The Europeans) blows that theory. Since joining forces in 1963, the team has been crafting stunners on a shoestring. What do you call filmmakers who make literary entertainment box office in the age of Beavis and Butt-head? Try miracle workers.
The Remains of the Day is their latest collaboration; it's an adaptation of the superb 1988 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro about an aging English butler looking back at his past as he drives across the country on a rare holiday. Detractors will see the usual parade of repressed feelings in a Masterpiece Theatre setting. Those who look closer will find one of the best films of the year – a stinging comedy of manners set against a background of political and emotional turmoil. As Stevens, the perfect butler, Sir Anthony Hopkins gives a landmark performance of true romantic longing. Through two world wars, Stevens served Lord Darlington (James Fox) at a country estate where guests included heads of state. But his lordship's efforts to appease Germany in the name of fair play led to scandal after the rise of Hitler.
Now it's 1958 – Darlington is dead, Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve), an American, is the new owner of the property, and Stevens must admit his blindness in serving a dupe of the Nazis while the love of his life slipped away. She is Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), the spirited housekeeper whom Stevens is driving to meet in the hope of rescuing her from a bad marriage and returning her to Darlington Hall for the first time since the 1930s.
Ivory, whose direction is controlled but never chilly, uses flashbacks to show how Stevens loses Miss Kenton through his devotion to a job that made him a witness to history without furthering his understanding of it. Ishiguro, a 39-year-old Japanese writer educated in England, exactingly captured the voice of an officious butler faced with a crumbling life in a crumbling empire. For Ishiguro, we are all butlers in the service of global masters who screw us up if we offer unquestioning trust. This is rich material for Jhabvala, a 66-year-old German Jew educated in England who lives in Delhi and New York with her Indian husband. She brings her own multicultural perspective to the way empires and people come to terms with the lies they tell themselves.
Still, Jhabvala lacks the novelist's luxury of space for political discourse. The film is most vigorously alive when themes develop from the love story, brilliantly acted by Hopkins and Thompson in roles different from but no less affecting than those that united them in Howards End. Thompson is dazzlingly good, switching moods from comic to tragic with the skill of a sorceress.
Miss Kenton's arrival at Darlington Hall represents an awakening of conscience for Stevens. She mocks his primness, his demands and his willingness to accept Darlington's dismissal of two Jewish maids. And though she teases Stevens for engaging his infirm father (the gravely funny and touching Peter Vaughan) as an underbutler – his runny nose wreaks havoc in the dining room – it is Miss Kenton who attends to the old man when he suffers a stroke. Stevens attends to guests, without betraying a sign of his distress.
The butler's misplaced pride frustrates Miss Kenton. The intimacies she shares with Stevens relate to their duties, though he can turn a compliment ("You mean so much to this house") into a covert admission of love. She needs him to act on his feelings. In a devastating scene, she flirtatiously tries to grab a book from his hand. Thompson gives the moment real heat; Stevens feels excited and cornered. But his wounded dignity drives her away.
This love story between two people who never kiss or get beyond calling each other Mr. and Miss is suffused with regret but not self-pity. Near the end, sitting on a bench at dusk by the seaside, they speak of what might have been and what can't be now no matter how much they wish it. In facing their compromises honestly, they find a dignity that will nourish the remains of their days. It's a fitting end to a heart-breaker of a movie, another jewel in the crown of Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala.