The first Merchant-Ivory film to receive a 4K UHD upgrade looks fantastic in the format, thanks to a superb Dolby Vision transfer that showcases its artistry and attention to period detail. More accessible and involving than most Merchant-Ivory movies, The Remains of the Day examines the complex relationship between a butler and housekeeper in pre-World War II Britain and features memorable nuanced performances from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Dolby Atmos audio and all the extras from the 2019 Blu-ray enhance this top-notch release. Highly Recommended.
Oh, those Brits. The stiff upper lips, reserved nature, disdain for outward displays of emotion, and reluctance to express and indulge feelings and desires. Over the course of film history, many movies have depicted the rigid, stoic British personality, but perhaps none as incisively - and heartbreakingly - as The Remains of the Day, director James Ivory’s and producer Ismail Merchant’s lyrical, elegant adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about the close yet tense relationship between Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the chief butler, and Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), the head housekeeper, at a lavish country estate during the period just prior to World War II.
I must admit I’ve never been much of a fan of Merchant-Ivory films. I generally find them stuffy, languorous (dare I say boring?), and more concerned with atmosphere and mood than plot. When I first saw The Remains of the Day upon its initial theatrical release in 1993, I went for Hopkins and Thompson but was surprised at how the story and themes quickly piqued my interest and held me spellbound throughout the 134-minute running time. For once, I felt Ivory stitched together the artistic, historical, and narrative elements of a film into a seamless whole and presented them with punch and panache.
The tale’s multiple layers keep us involved and resonate more strongly upon repeat viewings. While not nearly as soapy as such popular TV series as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, The Remains of the Day nevertheless paints a striking portrait of British class structure, the gaping divide between humble servants and their wealthy employers, and the overarching sense of duty and decorum that drives those who devote their lives to the service of priggish snobs who rarely acknowledge their efforts and sacrifices, often at the expense of their own happiness.
Stevens steadfastly serves Lord Darlington (James Fox), whose expansive estate regularly hosts a number of noteworthy aristocrats and foreign diplomats, all of whom pompously broadcast their views, voice their bigotry, and condescend to the manor’s staff. Stevens witnesses their interactions, endures their disrespect, and eavesdrops on their conversations, many of which betray their racist, anti-Semitic attitudes and sympathy for Germany’s controversial chancellor Adolf Hitler. Lord Darlington even hosts Nazi envoys who assure him Hitler is far from the aggressor and autocrat the press purports him to be…and who charm Darlington into promoting a policy of Nazi appeasement.
If Stevens is shocked by what he overhears, he can’t and won’t show any outrage. "It's not my place," he says, to judge, interject, advise, or even relate to his superiors. He inoculates himself against the arrogance of the ruling elite and is brainwashed by the soon-to-be archaic idea that the social hierarchy must always be adhered to and never questioned. Honor must be maintained at all costs, even when it signals doom and fosters ignorance. Whether Darlington is right, wrong, or in this case very indifferent to the storm clouds swirling around him, Stevens is bound to support and defend him to the bitter end. Sadly, he learns too late that an abiding commitment to an empty principle can be a waste and sap the best years of our lives.
Stevens hires Miss Kenton and is impressed by her skills and dedication, but their respective strong wills and inflexible viewpoints cause friction. There’s also an underlying romantic tension that simmers deep within their interactions and leads to immense frustration, which they deal with in far different ways. Emotions are too messy for Stevens' quiet, ordered, seamless existence. A shattered wine bottle is as jarring to him as a gunshot or explosion and incites more of an emotional outpouring than his unrequited love for Miss Kenton. Stevens is so used to being invisible, he can’t allow himself to be visible to the one he values most.
Ivory’s sensitive, meticulous direction, the literate yet accessible screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the intuitive, understated performances of Hopkins and Thompson, and the impeccable art direction and costume design, all of which were Oscar-nominated, brilliantly recreate this bygone, cryptic world and the people who populated it. Hopkins especially shines as the conflicted yet ever-loyal and self-sacrificing Stevens, whose aching regret cuts deeper and deeper as the movie progresses. His chemistry with Thompson (the two also co-starred in Merchant and Ivory’s Howards End a couple of years earlier) is both comfortable and crackling, and Thompson’s spunk, wit, defiance, and tenderness beautifully complement Hopkins' maddeningly stubborn reserve.
The supporting parts, so essential to any film’s success but especially so here, are also perfectly cast. Fox embodies the intelligent yet ignorant and easily duped Darlington, the strapping Christopher Reeve brings all of his Superman idealism and frankness to the role of an American congressman who futilely tries to open the eyes and crystallize the vision of the arrogant Brits, Peter Vaughan nails his role as Stevens’ proud, subservient father, a young Hugh Grant grabs attention as a gadabout who becomes a journalist and questions Darlington’s actions, and Tim Pigott-Smith, who was so memorable as the dastardly Ronald Merrick in the classic BBC miniseries The Jewel and the Crown, makes another notable impression as the man Miss Kenton turns to when she can’t crack the stone-cold Stevens.
Three decades after it first premiered, The Remains of the Day remains a rich tapestry of social and political history, misplaced honor and devotion, repression, and inner pain. It received eight Oscar nominations in all, including Best Picture, and holds up well today. Though far from uplifting, it’s arguably the most fulfilling Merchant-Ivory film, and its timeless lessons about both interpersonal and international relations should be heeded today.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
The Remains of the Day arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A leaflet containing a code to access the Movies Anywhere digital copy is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 and audio is Dolby Atmos. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the Sony press release, this 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with Dolby Vision was "approved by director James Ivory." No mention is made as to whether the source is a new 4K remaster, but from the moment the first shot flashes upon the screen, the sublime quality of this 4K UHD presentation is instantly evident. Lusciously film-like, with a faint yet palpable grain structure, the image brims with glorious clarity, pitch-perfect contrast, marvelous depth, and rich, brilliant color. All the ornate details of the lavish decor in the Darlington mansion - the massive gold-leaf picture frames, mahogany wood paneling, floral furniture upholstery, silver tea set, and all the tableware - are impeccably rendered, the inky blacks and crisp whites of the gentlemen's tuxedos make a statement, and superior shadow delineation and one drop-dead gorgeous double silhouette produce a picture that's as elegant as the atmosphere it depicts.
Has the verdant greenery of the English countryside ever looked more lush? Not likely. The green felt surface of the billiard table lights up the screen, the bold red hunting jackets and a red sports car grab attention, and the pastel flowers in the garden and teal-colored stairwell walls burst with vibrancy. Flesh tones appear natural and remain stable throughout and razor-sharp close-ups highlight the age spots on Hopkins' forehead, the pores and wrinkles on his careworn face, the droplets of rain on a car's exterior, and a fateful, single bead of sweat that hangs for what seems like forever from the elder Stevens' nose. A few low-lit shots exhibit a bit of softness, but that's to be expected, and no nicks, marks, blotches, or scratches dot the pristine print.
This is a breathtaking transfer that will delight the film's fans, all of whom shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
One of the quietest movies of all time gets a Dolby Atmos track. I'm not complaining, just perplexed. So many films that would benefit immeasurably from Atmos audio are denied it, while this dialogue-driven drama that takes place mostly within the sterile confines of a sedate mansion gets an Atmos track. Go figure. Quibbles aside, the track, which is Dolby TrueHD 7.1 compatible, outputs crystal clear, nuanced sound, but it's tough to determine whether the soundscape is more expansive, detailed, or contoured than the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that's also included on the disc. (A third option is a 2-channel Surround DTS-HD MA track.)
Some faint surround activity emphasizes the cavernous nature of the Darlington estate and allows the brooding, Oscar-nominated music score by Richard Robbins to envelop the listener. Noticeable stereo separation across the front channels provides enhanced perspective and a wide dynamic scale keeps distortion at bay. Weighty bass frequencies highlight the galloping horse hooves during the brief hunting sequence, sonic accents like the shattering wine bottle, thunder, and ringing bells are distinct, and subtleties like footsteps, gentle breezes, rain, and chirping birds come through cleanly. Most of the dialogue is easy to comprehend (some lines spoken under the breath or just above a whisper are tough to decipher) and no imperfections muck up the mix.
This is a high-quality track that beautifully complements and heightens the impact of the drama, but I wouldn't use it as a demo to wow your friends.
All the supplements from the 2019 Blu-ray have been ported over to this 4K UHD release.
Audio Commentary - Director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and actress Emma Thompson recorded this jovial, but not particularly enlightening commentary back in 2001 for the movie's DVD release. They reminisce about the shooting, identify locations, banter a bit, and praise various performances and aspects of the production. They also share some anecdotes, touch upon the story's themes, discuss the "monolithic" British social system, and decry the racism that pervades our society. Thompson is very frank about the quiet acceptance of Hitler in 1930s England by a wide swath of the British population and Ivory recalls the pressure he felt to get all the rules and practices of service correct, as well as an argument he had with Hopkins over a key scene. Those seeking a substantive discussion about the nuts-and-bolts of the film's shooting will be disappointed, but if you enjoy a relaxed chat between friends with some choice morsels sprinkled in, then this commentary will be your cup of tea.
Featurette: "Love and Loyalty: The Making of The Remains of the Day" (SD, 29 minutes) - Merchant, Ivory, Hopkins, Thompson, Reeve, screenwriter Jhabvala, author Ishiguro, co-producer Mike Nichols, and others discuss the story, characters, and themes, and outline the production's genesis and the script's evolution in this slick vintage piece from 1993 that relies a little too heavily on clips from the film. Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala also reminisce about their long-standing partnership and a clip from their first collaboration in the mid-1960s is included as well.
Featurette: "The Remains of the Day: The Filmmakers' Journey" (SD, 30 minutes) - Ishiguro talks about the universal nature of the story and Merchant, Ivory, and other members of the cast and crew recall how they brought the material to the screen in this in-depth 2001 featurette. We learn about casting, locations, Ivory's directorial style, production and costume design, and the development of the music score. Behind-the-scenes footage and film clips punctuate the interviews.
Featurette: "Blind Loyalty, Hollow Honor: England's Fatal Flaw" (SD, 15 minutes) - History is the focus of this 2001 featurette that examines the world events that swirl about The Remains of the Day and the "misplaced idealism" and "appeasement" that led Great Britain into World War II. Newsreel clips are interspersed with interviews with the cast and crew and clips from the film in this absorbing look at a turbulent time.
Deleted Scenes (with optional director's commentary) (HD, 15 minutes) - The seven excised scenes were well left on the cutting room floor. One of them crystallizes Lord Darlington's political views and shows Stevens to be less ignorant about the state of the world than he professes to be. Another allows Miss Kenton to more fully express her feelings of regret about leaving Stevens years ago, and a third shows Stevens breaking down and revealing his fears about the future after the death of Lord Darlington. Video quality is a bit rough and the boom mic can be seen in some scenes. The optional commentary by James Ivory provides some insight as to why the sequences were cut.
Trailers (4K UHD, 5 minutes) - The two-minute original theatrical trailer and three-minute international trailer, both of which are presented in Dolby Vision, complete the extras package.
Literate, lyrical, beautifully filmed, and brilliantly acted, The Remains of the Day stands as one of the finest and most accessible Merchant-Ivory films. The tale of duty, honor, and self-sacrifice still resonates and Sony's stunning 4K UHD presentation with Dolby Vision and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack fully immerses us in the rarefied, often stifling atmosphere of the nobility in pre-World War II England. All the extras from the 2019 Blu-ray and a digital copy code enhance the appeal of this top-notch release. Fans will definitely want to upgrade. Highly Recommended.