Viewer Guide: The Remains of the Day and In the Treetops

June 8, 2018 | Richard Peña

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


The Remains of the Day (1993)

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 that was 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.


In the Treetops (2015)

This week’s indie is In the Treetops, a 2015 cinema vérité-style drama written and directed by Matthew Brown.

It’s a cold winter’s night in suburbia at Christmastime, and while all the town’s children might be snuggled in bed with visions of sugar-plums, the town’s teenagers are most definitely wide awake, bored out of their minds and looking for something to do. In the Treetops focuses on one particular carload of high school-age kids with no particular destination in mind, just so long as wherever they go does not involve going home.

The group’s chauffeur is William—played by producer-writer-director Matthew Brown—and with a pair of buddies already in tow, the trio’s first passenger of the night is Alissa, whose amiable demeanor allows her to comfortably handle the car’s high testosterone level. Alissa also seems to take a quiet interest in William, despite his obvious crush on Alexa, the group’s next passenger pick-up, and the sort of high school beauty who can stun a group of rowdy boys into an awkward state of quiet consternation.

Aimlessly drifting wherever the night and random opportunity may take them, the group meanders towards a belated rendezvous with reality when some disturbing news about a classmate crashes into their self-enclosed world.

With its overall air of aimlessness, In the Treetops effectively captures the unspoken anxiety of its teenaged protagonists and the unconscious realization that life as they know it will soon vanish as they exit their high school cocoon, escaping an adolescent “prison” that is simultaneously intolerable yet reassuring. Hanging out and hooking up are two of the most essential teenage concerns, yet it’s generally been hard to capture honestly on film, or in any other medium. One has to deal with the fact that much time is simply dead time, and making watching “dead time” on screen can be challenging. In his feature film debut, In The Treetop’s writer-director Matthew Brown impressively allows his cast members to each to find their own rhythms, leaving even his moments of dead time with hints of where the action might go next.

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