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The Remains of the Day: Special Edition

Director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant had been making films together for nearly 30 years before their 1992 sleeper hit Howards End turned them from journeymen into trendsetters. Overnight, their prestigious-sounding team moniker "Merchant-Ivory" became a common synonym for the genre of highbrow, high-quality period dramas examining mores and manners amongst polite societies, which they revived. It's a little awkward, then, to note that in the arc of their partnership they themselves made very few of these films, and only three of them living up to the high standard associated with the Merchant-Ivory label: 1986's A Room With a View, Howards End, and 1993's exquisite The Remains of the Day. Like its predecessors, The Remains of the Day examines the tension between classes, but Remains, with its more contemporary setting, digs deeper and more profoundly into the matter, eschewing the obvious economic and social struggles to focus on the smaller, more devastating repression of emotional and political ideas amongst the serving class. Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel by Merchant-Ivory's career-long screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Remains is a careful study of Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the consummate Gentleman's Gentleman, a manservant impeccable in his service, attention, and loyalty to his employer. As head of the house staff, Stevens takes great pride in his work, especially given the significance of his Lord Darlington (James Fox), an influential voice amongst England's political elite during the 1930s and host to an important conference urging sympathy and alliance with a Germany reemerging from the ruins of the Great War. Stevens unconditionally defers to his employer's dubiously superior education and experience, suppressing even the possibility of an independent opinion beneath the same suffocating reserve with which he sublimates his affection for the head housekeeper, Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson), an equally professional but rather more emotional creature than himself.

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The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece of detail, fascinating in its depiction of a grand manor, its vast estate and ornate furnishings, and the complex mechanisms through which its large staff operates and maintains it. Director Ivory shoots it with a quiet austerity and an eye for the subtle spectacle. However, the most stirring details captured in Remains are not to be found in the production design or art direction, but in the performance of Anthony Hopkins. His Stevens is a marvel of form and manner, nearly autistic in his reliance on routine and his aversion to the disruptions of emotion. As the film's central character, Hopkins is faced with the tricky demands of reconciling the stiff nature of his character with an audience's need for empathy. The balance he strikes is magnificent, simultaneously hiding and revealing his inner life, a most difficult task. The sublimity of Hopkins' reserved performance exposes the hammy excesses which won him the Oscar two years earlier in The Silence of the Lambs. Naturally, Thompson is also excellent, playing both sense and sensibility, and anchoring the film's tone when Stevens' detachment is carried one step too far from pathos into unintentional comedy. Also excellent is Fox, as a man only vaguely troubled by the consequences of his naive politics, and Hugh Grant as Darlington's maturing godson. Columbia TriStar has given The Remains of the Day a top-rate DVD transfer in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen accompanied by Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. This disc has several welcome supplements, including a chatty commentary track with Merchant, Ivory, and the ever-charming Thompson, whose wit (followed by Merchant's endless laughter) dominates, and Ivory offers additional commentary on six excellent deleted scenes. Also here are three featurettes: "The Remains of the Day: The Filmmakers' Journey," an engaging half-hour piece on the entire production with interviews of all the major players; "Blind Loyalty, Hollow Home: England's Fatal Flaw," a solid 15-minute look at the film's historical and political context; and an "HBO First Look" segment. Trailers, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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