Viewer Guide: The Remains of the Day and We Don’t Belong Here

June 19, 2020 | 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.


We Don’t Belong Here (2017)

This week’s indie is We Don’t Belong Here, a family drama from 2017 directed by Peer Pedersen.

Catherine Keener stars as Nancy Green, a well-to-do widow living in an elegantly appointed palatial home.  Yet despite the trappings of material comfort, all is definitely not well in Nancy’s gilded world.  Narrated by her youngest daughter Lily, played by Kaitlyn Dever, Nancy turns out to be a sort of suburban Queen Lear, contending with the difficult and sometimes traumatic circumstances of her three daughters.  In addition to her struggles with Lily—who is in denial of her bipolar condition—Nancy is also semi-estranged from her daughter Elisa, a rising pop singer played by Riley Keough, who has her own problems with her  sometimes abusive boyfriend.  Only Nancy’s eldest daughter Madeline, played by Annie Stark, seems to be leading a stable life.  Yet when Madeline returns home in her family’s hour of need, with no job or relationship, her ability to remain on that even keel seems precarious at best.  And then there’s Nancy’s son Maxwell, played by Anton Yelchin, who is also wrestling with accepting his sexuality as well as a habit of drug abuse.  All these myriad plot line finally come together when Lily uncovers a traumatic secret from Elisa’s past. Blurring the boundaries between reality and hallucinatory visions, WE DON’T BELONG HERE also features SNL alumni Molly Shannon and Maya Rudolph, along with Austin Abrams as Lily’s boyfriend and Cary Elwes as a disturbing figure from the family’s past.

First-time director Peer Pedersen creates a narrative every bit as disjointed as the family he depicts; we often question the ordering of the scenes, seemingly switching between realty and hallucination, past and present.  It’s a bold approach to the material, but one that here leads perhaps to more shining individual moments than an overall sense of coherence. Filmed in 2014 but not released until 2017, We Don’t Belong Here marks the final movie released featuring Anton Yelchin, the Russian-born actor who plays Maxwell in the film, who died tragically in 2016. On a happier note, the film also marks the film debut of Glenn Close’s daughter Annie Starke, who plays Madeline; in 2017, Starke would play her mother’s younger self in The Wife.  Also claiming bold face name heritage is Riley Keough—the actress playing Elisa—who is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and the granddaughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley.

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