CINEMA / A masterly servant

THE MESSAGE of The Remains of the Day (U) might be that manners makyth history. The genius of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, maintained by James Ivory's film, is in the way the nuances of English etiquette march stride for stride with the nation's destiny. The book's narrator, Stevens, is a 1930s butler, working for Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall. While Darlington and his magic circle of white-tied guests seek to influence British foreign policy, Stevens must magically meet their needs: a spill or breakage might alter the course of the meeting, and of Europe. It is soon clear that both master, with his honour- bound overtures to Germany, and servant, with his unquestioning devotion, are appeasers. For Stevens, this is peculiarly cruel, as he is only doing his job. A case of being at the wrong place-mat at the wrong time.

The heart of the book is Stevens' punctilious homily on what makes a great butler - a mix of dignity and service to a great man. The film doesn't need the narration - it has Anthony Hopkins. He embodies both the ideal butler and his outmodedness. We first see his proud gaze as he opens some shutters. With his jutting chin, he looks heavy, a creature from an earlier age. He walks with a deferential stoop and his speech is breathless, almost gabbled ('Hs ldship'), as if he feels himself unworthy of words - except as utensils for work. If you read the book after seeing the film, you'll hear Hopkins' voice: decorous, efficient, with a latent testiness.

Hopkins is an actor who can roam brilliantly while standing stock-still: from concentrated viciousness in The Silence of the Lambs, to dull complacency in Howards End, and now a cloudy puzzlement. Hair slicked, face scrubbed, he still seems misted with unease. A repressed character is hardly new in a Merchant-Ivory film, but unlike the prig Cecil in A Room With a View or the dry-as-dust Mr Bridge of Mr and Mrs Bridge, this one moves us. We watch passions heaving under the starchy uniform.

The film is framed by scenes from the Fifties, as Stevens goes on a trip to meet the hall's former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). He motors through the West Country, breaking down and stopping at a pub. We are jogged, with his memory, into reminiscences of the hall's great days. Two strands, political and personal, wind through the film, becoming clearer to us than they do to Stevens, who often seems mesmerised. The first is his employer's increasingly obvious political folly; the second, equally blatant, is a love between him and Miss Kenton that dares not speak its name or anything else. Stevens' sense of duty straitjackets his feelings and opinions. When, in the pub, he's lured into a political discussion with the local loudmouth, he blenches, a virgin in the world of discourse.

As Miss Kenton, Emma Thompson is sharp and witty. She bridles when Stevens pulls her up about her work - theirs is a battle of professionalism - and later tries to goad him into some show of feeling. The role fits Thompson's galloping intellect and back-pedalling self- mockery: again the feminist instincts strain at the leash of good manners - 'You're so clever and yet so good,' she was told in Howards End. But the part does not have the butler's depth. In the book we see Miss Kenton through Stevens' blinkers. Something of that remains, making it hard to feel her disillusion as we do his. There is also a problem in the 22-year age gap between Hopkins and Thompson. Only their talent makes them a good couple.

When the film shunts into their final Brief Encounter, it loses some of its emotional force. Stevens' dim awakening to his master's historic role is more moving and momentous. His feelings for Miss Kenton are less wrenching than his relationship with his father and under- butler (a bitter-funny cameo from Peter Vaughan), in which a mutual love is shielded behind an armoury of pride. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script doesn't bring the political and the personal to the boil at the same time, as the book did, but it fails in little else. Much of the dialogue is Ishiguro's, but Jhabvala captures his register where she has to expand, and trims and points the speeches so that the film never feels bookish.

It was going to be scripted by Harold Pinter and directed by Mike Nichols (who now co- produces), and they might have come up with something darker. But the book suits James Ivory down to the ground. He is the butler's director. In his films, if nothing else, the table- settings are spot on. He ushers his classy cast to their places, and leaves them to it. Buttoning in his emotions, he would never take the liberty of venturing an odd camera angle or movement. The Remains of the Day makes virtues of his vices: the leaden pace seems in time with Stevens, and when the film's first piece of imagery flutters into view in its final scene, it's as if Stevens' imagination has at last been unlocked.

Needless to say, the period is captured to a T - or a U. We watch the old order being superseded, in the house and the world. No caption is needed when we move to the Fifties, so strong is the sense of transition: new ideas (somebody spouting socialism), but still talk of the war, its wounds unhealed.

These scenes are fresh air after the smug fug of the hall, where the tone is set by James Fox's vacant Lord Darlington. The Remains of the Day cuts to the heart of the English upper class, its complacent amateurism, foolish code of honour and moral myopia. In a great scene, Neville Chamberlain is whisked in for a clandestine late-night meeting. You feel the hairs rise on your neck at the unknowable folly. It's like being at the opening of Pandora's Box.

The remains of the week feel like rejected parts from other genre pieces. Demolition Man (15) combines plotlines that didn't make it into Blade Runner with jokes from the first draft of Sleeper. It's set in the Los Angeles of 2032, where Sylvester Stallone is tracking down a hoodlum (Wesley Snipes). It feels like they've been at this for years, and they have - since 1996, when they were sentenced to 40 years' cryogenic stasis (in the deep freeze, to you and me), after duelling through an LA of torched buildings and piles of crushed cars (plus ca change). They wake up in a dystopia that thinks it's a Utopia: a becalmed world of no violence, non-contact sex, and a meek, bland populace.

Some of us might settle for that - even though it looks as if it's meant to be a satire on political correctness. Not Sly and Wes. Hell, you can't even curse without an officious disembodied voice telling you: 'You are fined one credit for a violation of the verbal morality statute.' (This joke runs for so long you feel like treating it for cramp.) And, O boring new world that has no guns in it, except in museums. Snipes and Stallone excavate a few and go on a nostalgia trip down pandemonium lane. The film is old-fashioned rather than forward-thinking, its script not energetic enough to leap out of the present (the euphemistic future-speak is especially lame). Only the infernally hued photography and some effects stand out.

Guilty as Sin (15), directed by the ever-diminishing Sidney Lumet, is a second-rate Jagged Edge. Rebecca De Mornay, as the ambitious defence lawyer, is not even close to Glenn Close; Don Johnson, as the handsome rogue charged with throwing his wife from the 38th floor, is neither plausible nor charming. The script seems to have been dropped from a great height too, thudding to earth with clunkers like: 'I've got to get him before he gets me. It's that simple.' Sadly, it is. The final scene might have been the winning entry in a competition to find the worst possible ending.

L'Accompagnatrice (PG) is another mix of classical music and modern morality. It's an inoffensive little film about offensive people: a diva (Elena Safonova) who puts career before country, collaborating with the Nazis; her equally dodgy, cuckolded husband (Richard Bohringer) and the bemused accompanist (Romane Bohringer), who wears a wary, rueful look throughout. It's a film full of meaningful glances with precious few events to disturb its soft, melancholy surface.