What the Butler Saw

The Remains of the Day

directed by James Ivory, produced by Mike Nichols and John Calley and Ismail Merchant, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

It is untrue to say, as some critics do, that Merchant and Ivory movies have no individual style. Nor is it fair to dismiss their style, as other critics do, as a cinematic version of Ralph Lauren or Laura Ashley, even though it appeals to the same taste for fashionable nostalgia. Perhaps as a reaction against the snobbery of social and artistic modernism, we live in a regressive age marked by neo-Victorian novels (Vikram Seth), neo-Victorian music (Górecki), and neo-Victorian mores (“family values” and so on). If the Victorians had made films, one might call Merchant Ivory productions neo-Victorian movies.

The visual style of Merchant Ivory pictures is reminiscent of the society paintings by John Singer Sargent and James Tissot: plush, colorful, opulent, beautiful, but, like Victorian banquets, a little too rich for the modern palate. Realism was not their aim. Tissot and Sargent were interested in the surface of things. Form in their paintings is the substance. The message is in the clothes and the interiors, as much as, if not more than, in the faces. Like Merchant Ivory, both Tissot, a Frenchman, and Sargent, an American born in Florence, saw the glitter of English high society through foreign eyes. Theirs was a stylized vision of a world that was slowly disappearing. Merchant Ivory, of course, concentrate on a world that has already gone. But although the look of their films undoubtedly evokes nostalgia, nostalgia is not their main concern. Their work is more Victorian than that: Merchant Ivory are specialists in gilded prisons, in people living in beautiful places, trapped inside themselves, hence their interest in E.M. Forster, in Henry James, and indeed in Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day would seem perfect for the Merchant Ivory treatment. Set in a very grand house, in the English countryside, in the 1930s, it has all their visual hallmarks: fine clothes, fine paintings, fine cars, and fine people played by fine actors. Above all, it has their characteristic theme: a man trapped inside the mannerisms of his frigid public role, incapable of expressing his feelings, a man who has successfully closed the gap between form and substance. Stevens does not just perform his duties as a butler; he is a butler. Hence even in, no, especially in, moments of high emotional tension (his father’s death, for example), he can only express himself as a butler, fussing about the silverware, keeping the footmen on their toes, worrying whether the gentlemen are in need of refreshments.

Visually, The Remains of the Day is an impressive and sophisticated piece of work. Tony Pierce-Roberts’s camera beautifully captures the claustrophobia of life in a great country house: the narrow corridors of the servants’ quarters, the cramped butler’s pantry, the crowded kitchen, the hustle and bustle up and down the back stairs. A great deal of the action takes place in this “below stairs” warren, the fiefdom of housekeeper and butler. The camera rarely pulls back to provide space. We see things in…

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