FILM / Beyond the call of duty: Adam Mars-Jones on Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Merchant Ivory's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day

A gentlewoman in the last century, hearing that Queen Victoria would not after all be paying a visit to her country house, described it as the crowning disappointment of a disappointing life. It's a remark that could describe the experience of the butler Stevens, hero of the new Merchant Ivory film The Remains of the Day (U), written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, except that in its brevity the remark tends towards comedy, while the film in its expansiveness can only be aiming at tragedy. Tragedy, though, is more than pathos taken slow.

As you would expect of Merchant Ivory, decor gets its due, more perhaps than its due. Four great houses have been visually cannibalised to create Darlington Hall, home of an aristocrat who in the 1930s (as we are told immediately) turned the house into a think tank of appeasement. The camera shows us menial duties dignified by time - the beauty of a wooden kitchen table steaming when sluiced with boiling water, rather than the tedium of having to scrub it - and a social order distant enough for luxury and deprivation to seem relatively similar. The wine cellar at the Hall has a strong resemblance to a family vault, the inventory of vintages inscribed as if on memorial tablets. Clocks chime so often you may wonder whether they had such things as minutes in the 1930s, or only quarter hours. The library clock in particular has a syncopated tick louder than many modern alarms.

In 1958, Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) visits Mrs Benn (Emma Thompson), Miss Kenton as was, in hopes of persuading her to resume her duties as housekeeper under him, 20 years on. We know the outline of the story early (a good servant in a compromised cause), and from the presence in the cast of an Academy Award-winning performer of each gender we deduce a romance of however tenuous a sort. While we wait for this to be elaborated, there is nothing to soften the full crash of hindsight. We are invited to feel emotionally and politically superior to the past, though full of lust for its lawns and napery.

From the beginning, we know as much as Stevens, or more, about the value of his efforts. It is simply a matter of waiting until it's revealed if he feels anything of what we feel he ought to. To construct a constantly frustrating full-length narrative about inadequacy and its costs is clearly a challenge (audiences should be warned that The Remains of the Day runs as long as Terminator 2 without invocation of adrenalin). Perhaps it is something simpler than a challenge: a mistake. Delaying climaxes is all very well, but delaying anti-climaxes is an altogether riskier business. How long can Hopkins keep a gleam of withheld understanding somewhere below the surface of his eyes before we tire of its elusive constancy? How many times can Thompson smile and walk away before we feel that her range is not exactly being stretched? James Ivory cuts away from moments of tension, but he dare not leave us in doubt about the emotions he is building towards. So he lets Richard Robbins' music announce it on the soundtrack roughly a million times before the penny ever drops - or half drops, or drops and then undrops - with Stevens.

It's fair enough that Darlington Hall should be a sad, reduced place in the 1950s, what with the servants from 20 years before constantly reappearing before Stevens' eyes and then fading. But when we enter true flashback territory, the music tells us that this was always a domain of sadness. It's ruinous to the structure of the film that supremely po-faced scenes should be paired with so lush and explicit a soundtrack. But perhaps Ivory needs the other component of the music too badly - animation - fully to count the cost of its jarring expressiveness.

The music is full of an artificial restlessness, a rapt regretful rippling. The music is busy, busy as a mobile in a drafty house. It can modulate while the images do not, it can announce an intensity that the characters disown. A characteristic moment is a high string note that drops an octave, as if embarrassed by the expectations it has raised. The first violins make a shy foray into romanticism before huddling back into the ensemble. The music is full of melancholy, toing and froing almost without interruption, taken up with endlessly going nowhere.

Stevens' life is hollow, but the film is in bad faith with that hollowness, refusing to acknowledge it early on so as to reveal it later, with a theoretical dividend. A case in point is a scene early in the film where Stevens presides in the servants' hall, while his father (Peter Vaughan), recently appointed as under-butler at Stevens' request, tells anecdotes illustrative of his philosophy of domestic service. If there is no tension here, then tension has no business anywhere in the film: Stevens Snr, waffling embarrassingly about the vital importance of dignity, is violating his philosophy in the act of spelling it out, as he usurps his son's place in the hierarchical informality of the servants' hall. Stevens Jnr in his turn can only be torn by different loyalties, loyalty to his father and loyalty to the profession that his father has taught him, which demands that he exercise now, in however a muffled form, the authority of his senior position. But while the under-butler holds forth, the camera shows us first one side of the table, and then the other, but not the man at the head of the table whose point of view is the subject of the film. When the camera does at last show Hopkins' face, it is untroubled. The film must make out at this point that there is no difference between repressed tension and relaxation, or it can hardly hope for much impact when it reveals the obvious when we are all two hours nearer our graves.

The hero's frozenness of soul is camouflaged in part by surrounding him with lesser paralyses. His noble employer, played by James Fox, is too shy to pass on the facts of life to his godson (this feels very contrived - why should he?) and recruits Stevens for this extra-butlerial duty. Even Miss Kenton is hardly a free spirit. When another suitor (or simply a suitor, since Stevens never announces his candidacy) is working up to propose, she flinches when he makes so bold as to touch her bicycle.

Anyone who thinks this sounds less like a subtle exploration of love and loss than Alan Bennett without the jokes would be well advised to steer clear. Emma Thompson manages to keep audiences' giggles at bay when the heroine, wanting to talk hearts and minds while Stevens will talk only dust and alcoves, admits defeat with the slow lowering of her head on to a stool, as if it was an executioner's block. But it's a narrow escape from hilarity. Her greatest ally in the role is the lighting, which consistently bathes her face in firelight, while Stevens remains in lamplight.

Hopkins, meanwhile, gives a richly disciplined performance. His line readings have a meticulous dry depth, and when at length he raises a finger to the corner of his eye, audiences may almost be persuaded that he is realising . . . something. When Stevens smokes cigars in his private quarters, Hopkins' face remains inexpressive and the puffing lips give nothing away, but the confident hand that holds the cigar betrays a fantasy of being a toff.

When he is mistaken for a gentleman, there is subtlety and even sweetness in the way that Stevens discovers that eyebrows are not doomed by nature to a single subservient slowness of tempo. In the flashback sequences, his wince reflex has been rewired into a smile, but in the 1950s he occasionally displays a little laugh, as if it was an heirloom taken out of storage. Hopkins' Stevens is an extraordinary piece of work: an anthology of truthful touches serving an untruthful purpose, a treasury of wasted nuance. He is, indeed, a devoted servant of a compromised cause.

(Photographs omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence