What happens when you get Hannibal Lecter, Nanny McPhee, Superman, Charles from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and Ben Chaplin as a guy named Charlie (I really hope they did that on purpose) in a film together? Something not quite as exciting as it sounds, unless, of course, you take into consideration that this is a Merchant Ivory film, in which case, it's about as exciting as you would expect it to be: not terribly. Well, it sure seemed to thrill critics, though it's a shame it had the misfortune of coming out the same year as "Schindler's List", which was even more overlong, slow and old fashion, so much so that it was actually primarily in black-and-white. If you get provocative, slow period pieces and a few dirt-old filmmaking sensibilities, then you're pretty much a shoe in for critical acclaim. Hey, as much as the film stands to be better, it's still pretty undeniably elegant, which of course shows that Hugh Grant can be classy (Yeah, sure) and that Christopher Reeve was way more than just Superman, which sadly didn't stop him from getting stuck with that title. As for Ben Chaplin, I wouldn't so much say that he was so much succumbing to people's common misconceptions by playing a guy named Charlie as much as he diving in, because lord knows his birthname wasn't Chaplin and that when you're an aspiring English performer lucky enough to have your mother's maiden name be Chaplin, you're not likely to turn down a name change, as that's going to bring in quite a few role offers. Well, he certainly knows how to pick some good ones, or at least potentially good ones, for although this film is enjoyable, it gets to be too elegant for its own good.
Okay, now, with all of my going on and on about this film being so slow, to my surprise and relief, the film really isn't terribly slow, yet it does still hit those points quite often, rarely, if ever to point of leaving the film to dull out, but definately to where the film's momentum plummets, and with it, engagement value. Of course, maybe this film would have its slow points if it didn't give them plenty of time to creep their way in, as one of the most prevalent flaws with this film is simply that it is just too blasted long. At nearly fifteen minutes shy of a whopping two-and-a-half hours, the film sounds too long, considering its story, and is exactly that, dragging its feet from one place to another, going padded out by repetition, as well as much filler that distances the film from substance for an extended period of time and leaves you to, with the substance, fall out of the film momentarily, especially during points in which the film, almost in a montage-esque fashion, showcases the unraveling of certain events to obnoxiously gratuitous urgent-seeming score work, an event that's overlong and overbearing the first time, yet returns oh so many times throughout the film. Still, with all of the moments in the film that expel your attention, it's not like your investment is all that firmly locked in, because, as I said, the film gets to be too elegant for its own good, not just to where it slows down here and there and drags on consistently, but to where it takes so much restraint that, all too often, it restrains from bite, and that is just the thing that ruins this potentially fine effort. Don't get me wrong, the film has its fair share of effective moments, yet on the whole, there is a certain degree of emotional distance looming over the film's resonance, diluting conflict, intrigue and impact, thus leaving the film to fall limp, and your attention with it. As I said, the film picks up here and there, yet it gets to those points all too steadily, outstaying its welcome and tossing in the occasional slow spots, made all the worse by hazed emotional resonance, until, after a while, the film finds that it has fallen limp more than picked up, and just enough to finally fall beneath genuinely good. However, the film's collapse is not much more than by a hair, because for every miss, there is a hit, and just enough for the film to ultimately stand as worth watching, and I do mean "watching", as it's not too shabby on the eyes.
Now, in total honesty, one of the best pieces of photography pertaining to this film is probably the poster (Ooh, shiny Anthony Hopkins), yet there is a ceaseless grace within Tony Pierce-Roberts' cinematography, broken up by occasions of lighting that are truly breathtaking. The film is a visually striking piece, with fine art direction to compliment the production designs, which are dazzling yet far from overbearing, bringing to life the environment, and by extension, atmosphere of the world found within this story that deserves more than what can be provided by director James Ivory, who keeps his distance and restraint, to the detriment to this film, as many of his directorial efforts fall limp and betray the story's worthiness, of which, there is plenty, and just enough for you to still lock in just fine. Ivory does little to spark essence into this story, yet that's largey why the story does leave something of an impression, for although Ivory neglects to raise the intrigue of the film, he also manages to avoid diluting the film's intrigue with a lot of faulty moves or incompetence, thus making the film's tone more slave to the story than the actual execution, and while all of this slowness and dragging keeps the story from really picking up all that often, when the story does pick up, you feel it, certainly not as much as you would have if James Ivory put some blasted effort into the atmosphere, yet enough so that you can stick with the story, and with it, the film itself. Outside of that, the film owes much of its standing its ground to Anthony Hopkins, who has little to do, yet purposefully so. The James Stevens character is a willing slave to his work, seeking to get the job done and keep things in order while keeping as emotionally distant as he can, which of course leaves his humanity to take severe damage and himself to find much potential in his life squandered, thus making for a character that, in concept, presents quite a bit of material, only to go tainted by screenwriters Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's writing the role to be too broad, with limited depth and layers, and by extension, material for Hopkins to work with. However, come on, this is Anthony Hopkins we're talking about, and although his material is thin to the point of leaving him with little to play up, he stays faithful to the slickness of the James Stevens character with a smooth believability and charisma, and when material does finally present itself, needless to say, Hopkins delivers, providing subtle depth and sharp expressiveness that captures both the distance and humanity within Steven, into whom Hopkins gives us somber insight that defines our lead as a flawed human, noble spirit and compelling lead in a film that very often relies on him. Now, being that its story and subject matter is so minimalist, the film never stood much of a chance being especially upstanding, yet still deserves better than what it is given, though what good things it is given really do strike in a small but far-reaching fashion that gives this film the intrigue and depth that the key filmmakers can't hold together enough for the film to reward, yet the other talents who construct and carry this film can hold together just enough for the film to keep you going through and through.
At the end of the day, remains and all, the film has its slow spots, which are bound to be found amidst the film's ceaseless steadiness, spawned largely from considerable looseness that leaves the film to drag on, going plagued by repetition and filler that slows down the film's momentum, though not as much as James Ivory's emotionally distant direction, which leaves resonance to often fall limp and the final product to ever so unfortunately collapse as underwhelming, yet still stand as watchable, boasting fine art direction and sharp production designs that spark certain life into the story, which is strong enough to hold your attention all its own, though not without the help of a perhaps too restrained yet charismatic, occasionally subtly deep and altogether rather compelling lead performance by Anthony Hopkins, who helps in making "The Remains of the Day" the enjoyable and occasionally effective film that it is, even if it should be more than just workmanlike.
2.5/5 - Fair