Viewer Guide: Remains of the Day and Married Life with Richard Peña

August 23, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


This week’s film is The Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and directed by James Ivory.

The Remains of the Day represents the zenith of the long collaboration of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose frequent literary adaptations achieved a brand name popularity in the 1980s and 90s, with the films A Room with a View and Howard’s End. A “Merchant-Ivory Production” became virtually synonymous with a kind of intelligently written, well-acted somewhat plush period piece drama, a genre currently exemplified by the runaway success of “Downton Abbey” on PBS.

Indeed, it’s a fascinating moment to revisit The Remains of the Day, given the similar core of dramatic subject matter—the upstairs and downstairs worlds at a grand English manor house—that the Merchant-Ivory film shares with “Downton Abbey.” The Remains of the Day begins its narrative in the 1930s, almost precisely the moment when the story of “Downton Abbey” leaves off. Yet even though their stories are separated by only a few years, the tone and point of view of these two recreations of the British class system are distinctly different.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Mr. Stevens, the head butler charged with overseeing all servant staff at Darlington Hall. The film opens in the 1950s, right after the war, as Britain is striving to return to its former power and glory. Darlington Hall, however, is now owned by an “outsider,” namely a retired American Congressman, Jack Lewis, played by Christopher Reeve. Mr. Stevens receives a letter from Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper Miss Kenton, played by Emma Thompson. Noting her interest in returning to service, Stevens gets permission from his new American boss to visit Miss Kenton to discuss the possibility.

But Mr. Stevens’ excursion becomes much more than a pleasant reunion, as memory lane proves to have more than a few bumps and unexpected curves. In flashback, we learn more about his relationship with Miss Kenton, as well as Lord Darlington, played by James Fox, an aristocratic armchair politician who used his opulent home as a site for “friendship” conferences with representatives of Nazi Germany. At Downton Abbey, things usually seem to have a way of working themselves out; The Remains of the Day offers a much tougher, much bleaker view of the cruel price to be paid if one were to live by a bygone era’s code of relentless dignity.

Mike Nichols was originally attached to The Remains of the Day as director, with Harold Pinter slated to adapt author Kazuo Ishiguro’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. However, once the script underwent major revision by the Merchant-Ivory team, Pinter dropped out of the project. Despite some compression of the novel’s timeline and its characters, The Remains of the Day was greeted with rave reviews as an outstanding adaptation that captured much of the novel’s complex and difficult to dramatize themes, garnering eight Academy Award nominations including nods for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Alas, fortune wasn’t smiling on the Merchant-Ivory team Oscar evening; it was clearly the year of Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List, which swept most of the top honors that year.


Married Life (2007)

This week’s indie is Married Life, a 2007 suspense drama based on a novel by John Bingham, directed by Ira Sachs.

Set in 1949, Married Life transports us into the mid-century suburban world of Harry and Pat Allen, played by Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson, a childless, middle-aged couple who at first glance appear to be nestled just as comfortably in their marriage as they are in their upper-middle-class surroundings. Yet as we soon learn from the narration of Harry’s best friend Richard, played by Pierce Brosnan, all is not well in Harry and Pat’s world, or at least not in Harry’s half of it. It seems Harry has fallen in love with Kay Nesbitt, a lovely young widow played by Rachel McAdams, and after much soul-searching, he has finally decided he wants to leave Pat. The problem is, how to do it? Harry still very much cares for dear Pat, and knowing of her unswerving devotion to him, Harry is convinced that his announcement to end the marriage would just kill her. If that’s the problem, then perhaps it might also be the solution?

And so, taking a page or two from American film noir, Married Life holds up a distorted funhouse mirror to the darker side of long-term relationships, where fidelity and adultery sometimes turn out to be different sides of the same slippery coin.

Based on John Bingham’s 1953 novel “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” if Married Life reminds you of an Alfred Hitchcock film, it nearly was. Bingham’s book was actually adapted in 1962 as “The Tender Poisoner” for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series. Married Life embodies some of the “master of suspense’s” favorite themes, blending black comedy with some devious truths about human selfishness to create a mildly suspenseful cinematic cocktail. In fact, author John Bingham himself was rather like a character out of a Hitchcock film, having worked for England’s MI-5 security service, and ultimately serving as the inspiration for the George Smiley character in John le Carré’s popular series of Cold War mystery novels.

The DVD release of Married Life includes three alternate endings, which all flash-forward to the year 1966. In the first, Harry and Pat drive by a billboard for the digestive powder that Harry replaced with poison; distracted by the reminder of his near foray into murder, Harry crashes the car and Pat is killed; at the hospital, Harry asks Richard to bring him the same poison to kill himself, with Richard ending up being arrested for Harry’s murder. In the second ending, the film simply concludes with Harry taking the poison, and in the third, Harry and Pat drive by the billboard, with Harry flashing an enigmatic smile as they

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