Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about a butler (Hopkins), his cleaning duties, his friendship with the housekeeper (Thompson), more of his cleaning duties, and his employer’s fraternisation with Nazi sympathisers, this is a quintessential Merchant-Ivory picture; elegant, stately and slightly boring.
The script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Harold Pinter (who asked to have his name removed from the credits following major revisions by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant) switches between the pre- and post-war drama, creating an interesting tension that never quite pays off over 2 hours and 15 minutes.
In keeping with its English Heritage style, the film’s restraint makes it less than gripping. That’s not to fault Thompson and Hopkins whose performances carry the same subtlety that Ivory conveyed in his script for last year’s Call Me By Your Name, for which he became the oldest ever Oscar winner.
The film is well shot and acted (the supporting cast includes Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant and James Fox), while its discussion of tolerating fascism and turning a blind eye on antisemitism feel scarily relevant; they could easily do a contemporary remake called The Remainers of the Day. Start by putting all the bits about dusting in the bin.