11 December 2011

"The Remains of the day" by James Ivory & Ismail Merchant

Yaghan language (spoken in Tierra del Fuego - the archipelago off the southern tip of South America) has  a word that is considered to be the most succinct (and most difficult to translate to English):  "mamihlapinatapai".  It means the look shared by two people, each hoping that the other will initiate something that both desire but neither is willing to initiate.  Whew.

This 1993 Merchant Ivory movie (of course scripted by Ruth Jhabvala) is an excellent epitome of the "mamihlapinatapai" feeling.  The movie is based on Kazuo Ishiguro's book about the ambiguous relationship between a stoic perfectionist English butler (Anthony Hopkins) and a warm housekeeper (Emma Thompson).  One can sense the love between them; their reluctance to express it first; and their keen desire that the other should express first.  The housekeeper leaves to marry someone else.  Fortune offers another chance twenty years later only to be lost again.  

Anthony Hopkins' Mr Stevens is the perfect butler a master could hope for.  He runs the house with dedication and commitment; is laconic and polite with his master and with his staff.  He manages everything for his master and yet "vanishes into the wall paper" even as leaders of the era visit his master's house to  architect a European unity between the first and the second world war.  He sees nothing; hears nothing and talks nothing and offers no opinion even when the house guests seek his opinion on worldly issues.  Quite a contrast to Isaac Asimov's Henry (the butler serving the Black Widowers) who "engages" with impressive intelligence in the affairs of his guests.    

Emma Thompson's Miss Kenton is a polite and proper lady.  She is slightly warmer than Stevens; slightly less repressed and very subtle in expressing her emotions (be it love or be it anger).  She lets her emotions get through on two occasions: one, when she teases Stevens by enquiring whether he is reading a scandalous book that could hurt her character; another when she cries in her room after announcing her decision to marry Tom.  On both occasions, Stevens "misses the bus" in understanding and reciprocating the feelings.

You feel like intervening into the movie to break the ice.  That is the feeling Kazuo Ishiguro, Ruth Jhabvala, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory wanted you to be left with.

I would rather regret doing something than regret not having done something.  Excellent movie.

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