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    From a Butler Metaphor to the Nobel Prize

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    For internationally acclaimed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, born nearly 60 years ago in Japan and raised since age 5 in England, it was there on the page and remained so on the screen. His masterful book The Remains of the Day (published in 1989 and filmed in 1993) contains two major themes: the paralyzing fear of strong emotions and our human devotion to pride in quality work offered, as he would say in interviews, whether for “corporations or causes or country.” Thus, yesterday’s announced winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature (for a 35-year body of extraordinary writings) approached his most frequently cited work driven not by the need to be a social historian (though both book and movie portray the aristocratic British manor house milieu with astonishing acuity) but by the powerful image of a powerless manservant as a metaphor for most of us who hope that all our labors empower the common good. He told a Wall Street Journal interviewer in 2015: “We live in small worlds, and we contribute to some bigger world upstairs.” That the gentleman’s gentleman played pitch-perfectly in director James Ivory’s screen adaptation by Anthony Hopkins works for a misguided Nazi sympathizer (James Fox) in the years prior to World War II and gives his all to the exclusion of meaningful personal relationships (including one with a dedicated housekeeper also in the estate’s employ, delicately incarnated by Hopkins’ Howards End co-star Emma Thompson, adds to the devastating impact of the story. The Man Booker Prize-winning tome was originally to be adapted for film by another future Nobel Laureate, Harold Pinter, and directed by the formidable Mike Nichols. Pinter wrote a draft screenplay, but studio-decreed budgetary limitations persuaded Nichols to take a step back from the director’s chair and continue only in the role of producer. Ivory and his long-time production colleague Ismail Merchant, who had the connections and clout to make the movie more affordably, entered the arena in conjunction with veteran producer John Calley, and the screenwriting duties were then assumed by long-time Merchant-Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the Academy Award®-winning adaptor of A Room with a View and Howards End, both from E.M. Forster. As it turned out, a considerable amount of Pinter’s work was carried over into Jhabvala’s reworking but the eminent playwright would decline taking a shared credit. 

    Also starring Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant, Peter Vaughan, Lena Headey and Ben Chaplin, The Remains of the Day captured the interiority of Ishiguro’s book with achingly beautiful skill, to which reviewers and audiences, like Ishiguro not personally acquainted with or necessarily sympathetic to the slower-moving long-ago world of wealth and privilege depicted, responded with intense appreciation. Twilight Time’s resident essayist Julie Kirgo sums it up as “above all, a profoundly emotional film about the repression of emotion. Every frame here is somehow tinged with regret.” Noting its eight Academy Award® nominations (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Adaptation Screenplay, Art Direction/Set Decoration, Costume Design and Original Score), she continued: “Schindler’s List and The Piano swept up most of the hardware on offer. But more than two decades down the line, this is a film that remains startlingly potent and incendiary: a grave beauty with claws. Its political lessons are still relevant; its personal observations perhaps even more so. It is…a film for the ages.” In celebration of The Remains of the Day’s immaculately rendered and extras-loaded Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray (available here: and the generously gifted Ishiguro’s Nobel honor, it is fitting that the author who crafted the first word gets the last word here, in this absorbing Toronto International Film Festival Books on Film conversation with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewer Eleanor Wachtel here: