The art house essential:
Remains of the Day — Netflix
An achingly beautiful drama of unrequited love and the fallacies of devotion to the British class system, Merchant Ivory’s 1993 adaptation of the Booker Prize winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro remains one of the greatest British films of the 20th century.
Anthony Hopkins plays Stevens, the head butler of a country estate still tied to old fashioned traditions that ignore the political and social storm clouds that are gathering in the years ahead of the outbreak of World War 2. So devoted to his duties that he carries on serving his master and his guests while his aged former butler father lies dying in the servants quarters below, Stevens cuts a tragic figure behind the unflappable mask that Hopkins gives him in a remarkably subtle and quiet performance that manages to convey so many emotions through the simple flick of an eye or the almost indiscernible furrowing of a brow.
As the political chaos sweeping Europe begins to make itself felt in the drawing rooms of Stevens’ castle, he stubbornly refuses to see the terrible changes that will ultimately lead to the end of his world and that of the British ruling class he’s become so used to. His master has Nazi sympathies but Stevens remains too dedicated to his station to acknowledge this.
It’s only when a new housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), arrives that something previously unknown begins to stir in Stevens as he realises far too late that he has allowed himself to fall under the all too distracting and common spell of love.
A quietly magnificent triumph of a film that slowly weaves towards its heartbreaking conclusion while managing to deftly tackle its big themes of class, stiff upper lip British indifference and the evils of fascism along the way.
Brideshead Revisited — Britbox.com: World War 2 is also present in this unmatched adaptation of the epic novel by Evelyn Waugh. As Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) arrives as a soldier at the sprawling grounds of the now rundown Brideshead estate, his memories of the place’s golden age flood back.
We are drawn into the tragically nostalgic tale of the Catholic Marchmain family who Ryder became intertwined with after he befriended the family’s oldest son Sebastian, while a student at Oxford in the 1920s.
Here the subjects are not so much the decline of the British upper-class and the threats to its existence posed by the coming war but rather the challenges that a changing less stringently morally upright world throw pose to the faith, belief and long-held traditions of the Marchmains over an eventful two decade period.
There is much here, as there was in most of Waugh’s work, about the difficulties faced by the faithful in an increasingly secular and sacrilegious society but you don’t have to be Catholic or God-fearing to appreciate the great emotional peaks and valleys of the always engrossing drama that it so carefully unravels over the course of its 11 episodes.
It features a star-studded cast that includes many of the great British performers of its era and is realised with a keen eye for the period costume, interior and technological details of the era.
40 years later, it remains a superior piece of television that manages to capture a moment and way of living that thankfully no longer exists but once held so much power over the way that English society was organised and shaped.
The diamond in the rough
This Sporting Life — YouTube: The rough-and-tumble day-to-day struggles of the British working class provided constant fuel for the imagination and satirical barbs of director Lindsay Anderson. Anderson was one of the key members of the British New Wave cinema movement that emerged in the 1960s on the back of the social realist revolution that had upended the world of British theatre in the decade before.
Here in his debut feature Anderson directs from a script adapted from his own novel by New Wave favourite author David Storey , which uses the world of rugby to make some sharp critiques of the dour, too easily accepted, live-work-sleep-rinse-repeat capitalist rat race. Starring rabble rousing Irish bad boy Richard Harris in a career-defining method performance it’s a hard-hitting piece of social drama that’s also filled with much blackly comic observation of the absurdity of social relations under the class system.
It’s also one of the first films to really try to grapple with a phenomenon that would come to obsess Britain and the world at large — celebrity and the opportunities it provides for a meteoric rise from the gutter to the stars. Harris’s Frank begins as a hard-tackling nobody and ends up being a wily negotiating somebody who’s able to eventually crow, “I only enjoy it if I get paid a lot for it!” A sentiment that many in the current era of influencers and YouTubers can easily understand.