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Before “Downton Abbey,” there was Merchant Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day”

Updated: Feb 27, 2023


(1) Emma Thompson plays housekeeper Miss Kenton and Anthony Hopkins as butler Mr. Stevens. Both are servants under Lord Darlington played by James Fox. The two actors were nominated for Academy Awards and the film received six more including Best Picture, Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and more. (2) Stevens hires his father William (Peter Vaughan) to be a part of the Darlington Hall staff.

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4K Ultra HD & Digital copy; 1993; PG for themes; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: “Love and Loyalty: The Making of” featurette

WITHIN the global cinema – the trio of American director James Ivory, India-born producer Ismail Merchant, and Germany-born and English-educated screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – have been synonymous with the finest of dramatic filmmaking.

During the late 1980s and early ‘90s, their films racked up Academy Award nods left and right with “A Room with a View” (1986) and “Howards End” (1992) earning 17 nominations and six Oscars. The hot streak continued with “The Remains of the Day,” receiving eight nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Writing from a previous work, Best Art Director, Best Costume, and Best Music.

The story follows Mr. Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins, who lives a life of strict order and tranquility until the arrival of Miss Kenton, the new housekeeper, played by the always delightful Emma Thompson. Both work at the stately mansion of Lord Darlington (James Fox), a misguided English aristocrat with Nazi sympathies just before World War II. “Darlington is someone who unwittingly contributes to evil from the noblest intentions,” says Kazuo Ishiguro, author of “Remains of the Day.”

Director James Ivory says “Remains” has two stories. The film jumps back and forth, from a setting in a more modern age of the 1950s, in which Stevens goes on a “quest to try retrieving, if he can, the situation with Miss Kenton.” But the main story is set in the late 1930s, showing flashbacks to what Stevens remembers of life at Darlington Hall and his relationship with the housekeeper, who tries to break through his armor. “This woman [Miss Kenton] comes into his life and shakes him about a bit,” Hopkins says. “He was a challenge to her, and she was a girl who liked a challenge,” says Thompson. “In a sense, it’s a double love story. Love between the man and the woman, and between the servant and the master.”

(1&2) After World War II Lord Darlington died a broken man after he was exposed as a Nazi sympathizer. His estate was auctioned off and retired U.S. Congressman Mr. Jack Lewis played by Christopher Reeves purchases the mansion and the Elizabethan portrait “A Portly Gentleman.” (3&4) Stevens stays on as butler for Lewis. (5) The former Miss Kenton [Now Mrs. Benn] receives a letter from Stevens, who plans to visit her.

Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adapted the Booker Prize-winning novel into a “spellbinding tragicomedy of the high and most entertaining order,” writes New York Times critic Vincent Canby in November 1993. “Part of the fun of writing a book like this, for me, was to immerse myself in the surface of a world I was unfamiliar with,” Ishiguro says.

The collaboration between the three began in 1961 and continued until the death of Merchant in 2005 and Jhabvala in 2009. Ivory finally won an Oscar in 2017, at the ripe old age of 89 becoming the oldest winner in Academy Award history, for his adapted screenplay of “Call Me by Your Name.”

American producer Mike Nichols was fascinated with the idea of examining the life of a butler. “What is it like to be the person in the scene who doesn’t speak, who serves, who watches?” Stevens is much like a priest, "in complete devotion to something higher than himself," Ivory says.

One of the biggest challenges for the Merchant Ivory production was getting the film rights. At first, screenwriter Harold Pinter (“The French Lieutenant's Woman”) had snagged them and was developing a script for Nichols to direct. Ultimately, however, he couldn’t work it into his schedule, so it landed with Merchant Ivory, “which was an ideal marriage,” says Nichols.

The supporting cast is excellent including Christopher Reeves in one of his last theatrical appearances before falling from a horse, breaking his neck and leaving him a quadriplegic. He plays outspoken U.S. Congressman Lewis and the future owner of Darlington Hall.

(1&2) During the 1930s Darlington Hall held its annual fox hunt. (3) Lord Darlington instructs Stevens to hire a new housekeeper since the previous one left to get married. (4) Stevens interviews Miss Kenton.


The best is the 28-minute “Love and Loyalty” featurette, then “The Filmmakers Journey” featurette with additional interviews with author Kazuo Ishiguro, and Director James Ivory, who first read Ishiguro’s novel and felt all along it would make a terrific movie. He also felt Thompson was the only actress to play Miss Keaton. “I didn’t want to imagine anybody else.” They also talk to the two leading actors Thompson and Hopkins, “who never envisioned himself playing Stevens.” And with composer Richard Robbins.

“Blind Loyalty, Hollow Honor: England’s Fatal Flaw” examines the Appeasement era, when Hitler came to power in Germany and how many British felt they “could find an accommodation with Hitler and Germany and WWII could be averted,” Ivory says.

Also find a running commentary with Ivory, Merchant, and Thompson, who dominates the conversation with plenty of her humor. She had forgotten she provided the intro voiceover at the beginning. “I hadn’t seen it in years,” Thompson says. She also quickly points out that during the 1950s scenes, she looks “exactly like my mother. And Ivory thinks Reeves looks like legendary actor Burt Lancaster with gray hair as the new owner of the Darlington estate.

4K/HDR disc vs. 4K/SDR digital

The servants dine in their own quarters. The top frame shot shows the natural color grading with the expanded HDR grading compared to the second frame shot graded with standard dynamic range and its excess red tint.


Over a decade ago, Sony scanned the original 35mm camera (2.39:1 aspect ratio) captured in Super 35 and made it available in 4K without HDR grading on digital platforms. That presentation was plagued with a strong reddish tint from the lesser SDR.

The new HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading approved by 94-year-old James Ivory corrects the colors and gives each actor more accurate facing toning. The overall color palette is well saturated and has a much better black level and mid-shadows without blocking up and more detailed highlights without blown-out bright spots. The HDR10 peak brightness hits 1668 nits and averages 224 nits, and with an overall 50 megabits per second video rate onto the 100-gigabit disc.

The onscreen 4K resolution is the very finest sourced from the Super 35 format, which is slightly less than anamorphic films, and the natural film grain is more pronounced. Sony is Hollywood’s best at maintaining grain, while other studios apply some amount of grain management. The only time the image gets a little soft with the larger grain comes during the opening title sequence from the composite of titles and background imagery and during the cross dissolves, which automatically becomes a second-generation element.

(1&2) The servants eat their meal and Miss Kenton addresses Stevens because his father left the dustpan and broom on the stairs. (3&4) William Stevens trips on the stoned and drops the plate of cups and tea. (5) Stevens tells his father that it’s been suggested he no longer waits at the table.


Sony provides a new eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, bringing Richard Robbins’ melodic score to your height speakers. Just don’t expect much more than those music cues to fill the room. This is pure front-speaker dialogue-driven drama, so the bigger the center speaker the more dynamic the frequency response.

Sony also provides the previous six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack and the original two-channel Surround DTS-HD MA.

If you’re a fan of Julian Fellowes’ aristocratic Crawley family and servants of “Downton Abbey,” you’ll love this beautiful adaptation and its rich textures and splendid acting – looking and sounding top-notch in its 30th Anniversary 4K remastering.

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

Darlington Hall Summit

(1) Hugh Grant plays Reginald Cardinal - Lord Darlington’s godson. (2&3) Lord Darlington hosts an International conference with representatives from France, Germany, and the United States. (4) Miss Keaton gives Stevens the news about his father. (5&6) The German baroness (Brigitte Kahn) sings a Franz Schubert song on the final night of the conference.


(1&2) Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens have a brief encounter, but she must decide if she’ll marry Tom Benn (Tim Pigott-Smith).

One Final Visit

(1) 1950s - Mr. Stevens borrows the Daimler vehicle and runs out of gas while driving to visit Mrs. Benn. (2&3) Mr. Stevens tries to convince Mrs. Benn to join him and work for Mr. Lewis at Darlington Hall.


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