A friend recently remarked to me how similar the British and Japanese are, for their rigid class systems, and stolid custom of surrendering personal indulgence and judgement to ritual obedience of customs that fix social and personal boundaries.
Today I re-visited the 1993 film The Remains of the Day. An understated gem that makes my friend’s observation come to life.
How striking, still, after all these years, to see the privilege and tragedy of British aristocracy told quite so poignantly by Kazuo Ishiguro. How odd, too, that he met with the approval of the British literary establishment, winning the 1989 Man Booker Prize for the novel.
I wonder whether Ishiguro reflected, at the time, on having been born in Nagasaki only nine years after the gates of hell were opened on it by the Americans. In the country of Britain’s wartime enemy. I wonder too whether Britain’s literary establishment reflected on this 35 years later. That from the death of its empire would come the scion of another, to so perfectly chronicle the reserve and self-denial that is the virtue of rigid class structures. And which function to deny the self as a microcosm of the empire itself.
Lord Darlington and his attempts at appeasing the encroaching Nazi threat come across as lacking the vigour or self-assurance that belongs to a dominant class in a dominant empire. And it comes with the literary flourishes that acknowledge surrender; a retreat from real decency when Czechoslovakia is abandoned as not the concern of the British, and Lord Darlington himself decrees two Jewish girls be dismissed from his service for being Jewish.
Stevens is a man lost to the world – and himself – in the devotion of his service, though not as free from higher responsibility as he supposes. His punishment, it seems, is the loss of his soul, epitomised in the character of Sarah Kenton. And he must surely have guessed his failings as a man of principle when his own small rôle in the betrayal of Czechoslovakia comes with Lord Halifax’s praise for the silver at the dinner table. The awfulness of reducing the world to war as somehow dignified by the impeccability of the silver service.
Having already witnessed his father’s decline and death, that path seems to be the only one left open to him when he has closed himself off from all else.
There is a moment when I thought Mr Stevens might push past his self-abnegation under the withering ridicule of his lordship’s guest, a Mr Spencer.
SPENCER: I have a question for you. Do you suppose the debt situation regarding America factors significantly in the present low levels of trade? Or is this a red herring and the abandonment of the gold standard is the cause of the problem?
STEVENS: I’m sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance in this matter.
SPENCER: Oh, dear. What a pity. Perhaps you’d help us on another matter. Do you think Europe’s currency problem would be alleviated by an arms agreement between the French and the Bolsheviks?
STEVENS: I’m sorry, sir, but I’m unable to be of assistance in this matter.
DARLINGTON: Very well, that’ll be all.
SPENCER: One moment, Darlington, I have another question to put to our good man here. My good fellow do you share our opinion that M. Daladier’s recent speech on North Africa was simply a ruse to scupper the nationalist fringe of his own domestic party?
STEVENS: I’m sorry, sir. I am unable to help in any of these matters.
SPENCER: You see, our good man here is “unable to assist us in these matters.” Yet we still go along with the notion that this nation’s decisions be left to our good man here and a few millions like him. You may as well ask the Mothers’ Union to organize a war campaign.
We never gain an insight into Stevens’s understanding of politics, but I rather imagine that a man who so assiduously ironed his lord’s copy of The Times every morning for years might have read its contents from time to time.
For me personally there could be no more serious insult than some pompous arse questioning my knowledge of political economy or my ability to make valid democratic choices based on that understanding. And even if I were more likely to have been one of the gentlemen served by Stevens, I would have still recognised in the patronising manner the insult that was delivered to one who could not very well defend himself.
I wonder though whether Ishiguro’s critique of classism was not precisely what this moment hinged on: the complicity of the servants to be ruled and ridiculed for their lowly status, but responsible too for the consequences of the patronising attitude left unchallenged. In this case to wreak ruin on the nation, his master, and, to some extent, also onto himself.
The screenplay was written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Harold Pinter, though the latter declined to put his name to it. In their biography of Pinter, William Baker and John Ross said that seven scenes in the final film remained Pinter’s work, but they did not explain his reasons for disowning the script.
Jhabvala is a rare artist in her field, being the winner of the Man Booker herself, in 1975, with Heat and Dust, and of two Academy Awards for screenplays, in 1987 for A Room With A View, and in 1993 for Howards End. A Prussian-born Jewish refugee to Britain, she lived in India from 1951 until 1975, when she moved to New York, to remain in the city until her death in 2013.
Did The Remains of the Day require two such outsiders to British society – Ishiguro and Jhabvala – to make its points? I think it might well have been the vital ingredient to create an appeal across generations, stirring the interest of others unfamiliar with the theme, the era, and the telling minor details that adepts overlook or pay little attention to, even when they comprise in combination a much more revealing picture of a time, a society, and a Weltanschauung.
Not that it informs the story, but I was touched, too, by the background to the production company, Merchant Ivory Films. It was a partnership between lovers Ismail Merchant and James Francis Ivory, the director of The Remains of the Day. It transpires that Jhabvala was the company’s principal screenwriter, producing 23 of the 44 scripts turned into film since Ivory and Merchant founded the company in 1961. Between them, this trio managed to win six Academy Awards for their work.
It seems, then, that what I had thought would be a quiet and understated film, to keep me company on a balmy Spring Sunday morning, is in fact the work of accomplished masters all around, not forgetting exemplary performances by Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Peter Vaughan, James Fox, Christopher Reeve, and others, which were so unobtrusive as to hardly disturb the illusion of the story.