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The Remains of the Day (1993)

Internet Movie Database link Character Name: Jack Lewis

Reviewed by Betsy Mahon (bmahon@alamedanet.net)

In his autobiography, Christopher Reeve recalls that, after the premier of Howard's End, he tapped James Ivory on the shoulder and asked "Any part in your next film, it doesn't matter what it is". Ivory offered him the small, but important, role of Jack Lewis, an American congressman, in his upcoming movie The Remains of the Day, based on a novel of the same name, by the British author Kazuo Ishiguro. The film reunites Howard's End stars Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It also features the yet undiscovered Hugh Grant in a small role.

Video Cover Ivory stated: "I first read The Remains of the Day in 1989 while we were shooting Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in Kansas City. One of our actors gave me the book. I knew at once that I wanted to make it into a film. The story seemed to me to be a sort of classic triangle.... The milieu was also interesting for me, as well as the period: a great aristocratic establishment centered in an English country house just before and after the Second World War, but seen from the perspective of the staff, and most particularly, the butler." He added: "I instructed my agent in England to see if the novel's rights were free, but I soon learned they were not: Harold Pinter had optioned the book and was said to be writing a screenplay for Mike Nichols, who would be making the film for Columbia Pictures. I thought, 'Well, that's that,' but I followed the progress of the project anyway - things can always happen - this time through my American agent." Things did happen. Mike Nichols withdrew, then formed a partnership with the Merchant-Ivory team which had just completed Howard's End. Long time collaborator Ruth Prawar Jhabvala agreeded to rewrite the script. Many members of the production crew moved directly from Howard's End toThe Remains of the Day.

The film is basically the story of 2 loyal servants - Mr. Stevens (Hopkins), the butler, and Miss Kenton (Thompson), the housekeeper - at Darlington Hall in pre World War II England. Early in the movie, we see Congressman Lewis bidding on Darlington Hall at auction. He takes possession of the manor and offers Stevens a well deserved vacation. While driving across England, Stevens has a chance to reminisce about life on the great estate. Stevens, a second-generation servant, always performed his duties with the utmost discretion and attention to detail. Miss Kenton was equally as efficient, but much more high spirited. They were clearly attracted to each other, but only able to relate on the level of butler and housekeeper. Their affection was only expressed in terms of pitched battles over domestic details. Frustrated by the situation, Miss Kenton broke away from the service of Darlington Hall to marry. Stevens remained loyal to Lord Darlington (James Fox), a Nazi sympathizer, and blind to the intrigue going on in the household which he so ably managed. Stevens' journey at the outset of the film is an attempt to reconcile with the former Miss Kenton and to persuade her to return to Darlington Hall. When he is unsuccessful in these endeavors, he returns to the only environment where he is comfortable and takes up the service of the new owner of Darlington Hall.

Making a bid Although he appears in a limited number of scenes, Christopher Reeve adds a breath of life to this film. He appears in the opening sequence bidding on Darlington Hall when it is on the auction block. Old retainers with long memories at the estate ask "Is this the same Lewis who attended the conference in 1936?" His relaxed manner eating breakfast and chatting contrasts with the formality of Stevens. When the movie reverts back to the thirties, Reeve portrays the brash young American Congressman who has no patience with the stodgy British and French aristocrats or their na´ve political philosophies. In my favorite scene, he is frustrated when a French diplomat (played by Michel Lonsdale, whom Reeve had befriended in Paris two decades earlier) refuses to look beyond his sore feet to the dangers posed by the Nazis. He yanks the man's shoe off and throws it to the ground. At a formal banquet, he delivers his stirring speech "You are amateurs and international affairs should not be run by amateurs. We don't need gentlemen politicians, but real ones."

Dressed in a tuxedo Reeve clearly enjoyed being reunited with the Merchant-Ivory team and with the artistic license it provided him. He wrote, "Jim was as generous and open to suggestions from everyone as he had been when we worked together nine years earlier." Reeve ad libbed the above scene where he threw the ambassador's shoe in frustration, as well as a later one in which he apologized to Lord Darlington for his statements. "After we shot this speech it seemed to me that it might be a good idea for Lewis to apologize to the host to make it clear that the cutting remarks at dinner were not meant to be taken personally. Jim and I added some dialogue about how I had loved England since I was a child and had always enjoyed visiting here with my family. As the cameras rolled I approached our host with my apology. James Fox had not expected me to come over, so his look of polite bewilderment was absolutely genuine. Once again, as he had done with the dog on the beach in The Bostonians, Jim appreciated the spontaneity of the moment and used it in the final cut."

The Remains of the Day opened in November 1993 and was an immediate success. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards including "Best Picture", "Best Actor" (Hopkins), "Best Actress" (Thompson), "Best Director" (Ivory) and "Best Screenplay Adaptation" (Jhabvala). Reeve wrote in Still Me, "After only a few days of shooting, it was obvious to everyone involved that Tony and Emma were giving the performances of a lifetime. My spirits soared with the realization that I was contributing, even in a small way, to a film that was certain to become a classic." He is quoted in the Havill book "I don't regard that as my movie - I was a visitor - but it's the best movie I've ever been in. Anthony Hopkins gave one of the best performances ever captured on screen." Reviews of Reeve's performance were good but brief. The Variety critic wrote "Christopher Reeve brings authority and Yankee energy to the one dissenting voice in the collaborationist circle." Christopher Reeve "heads a superb supporting cast" was used more than once.

Dressed in a sweater There is some disagreement over the effect Reeve's role in The Remains of the Day had on his future career. Havill writes that the success of this movie meant a return to stardom and that "there were movie offers again arriving by the dozen". Reeve clearly thought otherwise. "...I felt that my performance as Lewis was one of my personal best and hoped the role might begin the resurrection of my film career....But when the articles and reviews came out, I was scarcely mentioned. ...I had the satisfaction of being a part of an undeniably great film, but it did nothing for my career." After The Remains of the Day, Reeve made three movies in fairly quick succession. In all, he gave earnest performances but none was enough to return him to true stardom. He had long coveted the role of Thomas Jefferson in another Merchant Ivory film Jefferson in Paris. Reportedly he had discussed the role as early as 1985, but when Merchant-Ivory formed a partnership with Walt Disney Studios to offset costs, Disney insisted on Nick Nolte in the title role. Still, Reeve refused to feel sorry for himself. In an interview just 17 days before his accident, he told a reporter: "Overall I'm happy with the route that I took and think the best opportunities are ahead of me."

"Remains of the Day" is available on videotape and DVD.

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