The filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory has made so many tasteful, impeccably decorated literary adaptations that their names have become a shorthand for the genre's worst aspects, which is largely unfair. True, they've been responsible for plenty of leaden period pictures, but the Merchant-Ivory team has also been behind a handful of the most vivid, deeply felt movies of the past two decades, movies as far-ranging as the frothy A Room With A View and the poignant, worldly A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. Their best film, 1993's The Remains Of The Day, has been reissued in a DVD edition that may prompt reassessment from Merchant-Ivory skeptics. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains stars Anthony Hopkins as a butler serving British power broker James Fox, and Emma Thompson as the housekeeper for whom Hopkins can't confess his deep affection. Their romance of missed connections would be the stuff of cheap paperbacks, were it not for the historical context provided by Ishiguro and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The Remains Of The Day is set primarily in the '30s, in the years prior to WWII, in a house where the gentleman politicians of Europe gather to hash out the rebuilding of Germany. The story dwells amid layers of meaning and metaphor, as the life of a butler so devoted to service that he has only a few hours and a few crumbs left for himself becomes emblematic of the intractable British class system, and of the character traits that led the U.K. to underestimate Hitler. In that context, Hopkins' inability to articulate his true feelings has more than sentimental value: It's downright revelatory. The DVD commentary track by Merchant, Ivory, and Thompson is full of good will and pertinent behind-the-scenes dish, and there are priceless moments in the two "making-of" mini-documentaries and 12 minutes of deleted scenes. But the disc's key special attribute is a featurette on Great Britain's strategy of appeasement to the Nazis, which Ishiguro equates to a butler preserving order in a house without questioning the decor. The Merchant-Ivory touch, defined by restrained performances and lavish detail, jibes perfectly with the theme of irrational propriety. The shame and anger of a nation forces some emotion to flow over the filmmakers' usual dam, and the hierarchy of servants and lords possesses an allegorical depth into which viewers can readily sink.
More from The A.V. Club