The director of those most essentially British Merchant-Ivory films is, surprisingly, an American. James Ivory talked to Allan Hunter
about his latest release, The
Remains Of The Day.
ver the course of 30 years and more than twenty feature films. the team of producer Ismael Merchant and director James lvory has become a by-word for craftsmanship and quality. lmpcccable literary adaptations like A Room With A View and Howard '5 End have allowed them to construct one of the most successful partnerships in the history of independent
Janos Ivory: “It you have cast the role properly, you are going to like what they show you."
filmmaking. To their critics, they are the Crabtree and Evelyn of the arthouse establishment, churning out dead cinema with what one accuser labelled ‘a rather unobtrusively tasteful diffidence’. The legendary Pauline Kael even dismissed Ivory as ‘essentially a director who assembles the actors, arranges the bric-a-brac and calls for the camera.’ But anyone prepared to leave their prejudices at the door will discover a body of work that deals movineg with a whole spectrum of recurring themes, from individual repression and loneliness to the class struggle and the clash of disparate cultures.
The duo have chosen to celebrate 30 glorious years with a business- as-usual policy that includes the active preparation of Jefferson In Paris, starring Nick Noltc and Greta Scacchi, and the release of The Remains Of The Day, their adaptation of the Kazuo lshiguro Booker Prize-winner that is considered one of the front runners for the Oscar nominations to be announced on 9 February.
Written by frequent Merchant- lvory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the film returns to a constant theme in their lattcrday work of individuals — generally men — who, by suppressing the emotional side of their character, deny themselves the abundance that life has to offer them. In their celebrated EM. Forster adaptations like Maurice, the power of love is so potent that it cannot be ignored and thus unlocks the key to a battered heart. In The Remains Of The Day, as in the recently televised Mr And Mrs Bridge, the love at the heart of the story is never given its full expression and thus lives waste away in quiet desperation and solitude.
Anthony Hopkins is the imperturbable gentleman’s gentleman, Stevens, whose whole life is devoted to the orderly maintenance of another man’s existence. Over twenty years he
has displayed an unquestioning loyalty to Lord Darlington (James Fox) a well-meaning member of the British establishment active in the policy of appeasing Hitler. A speck of dust, a picture out of place or a wrong setting at dinner have been the major issues in his life apart from an attachment to the very capable housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). It is on a journey to renew acquaintance with the one true love of his life that Stevens is forced to reflect on the opportunities for happiness that he has allowed to pass him by; never acknowledging the emotional turmoil of his life even as his father lies dying or as Miss Kenton grows increasingly frustrated at his inability to tell her what he feels.
A beautifully crafted film, The Remains Of The Day is all about the subtle nuances of human behaviour and has won both critical plaudits and respectable mass audiences in America; a remarkable feat considering that the only special-effect in the film is the quality of the acting. In fact in recent years, Merchant- lvory films must have been something of a godsend to the usually impoverished American Academy when it comes to honouring female achievement in acting. Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith and Joanne Woodward are just some of the illustrious figures to have received Oscar nominations under the tutelage ofJames Ivory, and Anthony Hopkins is one of 1994’s leading Oscar contenders for the combination of his roles in The Remains ()f The Day and Shadow/ands. Ask the gentlemanly, 65-year-old lvory to explain the secret of this success and the soft- spoken Californian will typically turn the spotlight back on to the talents of his performers.
‘What I basically have to do is be receptive to what it is the actors want to show,’ he states. determined to promote a policy of self- effacement. ‘Good actors think how they want to do a role and they develop it in their minds for a long, long time and with far more depth than 1 ever could. They bring things out of their pasts and their own subconscious and then they show me on the day. The chances are, if you have cast the role properly, you are going to like what they show you. If it’s somebody like Anthony Hopkins or Emma or James Fox, you’re going to like it very much. From then on. it’s just a nudge this side or that side to keep it going on, or if they do something that somehow seems outside the idea of the film or wrong then you pull them back from that. That’s how I see it.’
Implicit in lvory’s approach is the notion of trust between actor and director. He gives the impression of possessing infinite care and patience in dealing with the sensitivities of his performers. an attribute not necessarily shared by his peers. lvory’s secret may well be his desire to entrust the actors with the
12 The List 14—27 January I994