THE first step in making a good movie is deciding what kind of story you want to tell.
The wizards at Merchant Ivory Productions have taken occasional missteps in this area. When they made ``Slaves of New York,'' for instance, it turned out that nobody wanted to see their comic vision of Manhattan's avant-garde art scene.
In recent years, though, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory have zeroed in on stories that are exactly right for their talents, from the quintessentially American vignettes in ``Mr. & Mrs. Bridge'' to the British fables of E.M. Forster in ``A Room With a View'' and ``Howards End.''
THEIR new movie, ``The Remains of the Day,'' marks another splendidly chosen project for the Merchant-Ivory team. Its main characters and primary setting - servants and aristocrats on a venerable English estate - provide the genteel atmosphere and eye-pleasing detail that have become Ivory's trademark as a director. Yet the surface appearances and events of the story are charged with serious overtones and disturbing subtexts that lend it the resonance admirers have come to expect.
The film is based on a smartly written novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, whose melodiously Japanese name hides the fact that he came to England as a child and grew up in thoroughly British surroundings. His ability to observe English life as both insider and outsider stands him in good stead; the book benefits greatly from his mixed feelings of affectionate respect and critical skepticism.
The story focuses on a British butler named Stevens, who hangs onto the traditions of his trade at a manor called Darlington Hall - refusing to relinquish the prewar past even though it's now the late-1950s and old-school nobles like Lord Darlington have long since vanished. The central event of the movie is a journey Stevens makes to visit a one-time housekeeper of the estate, Miss Kenton, and ask her to retake her former job.
As he prepares for his trip, Stevens has much time for reminiscing about the past; and his memories take on a sharper edge after certain conversations he has while on the road. Lord Darlington was his hero in the glory days of the '30s, when Darlington Hall was the center of international conferences aimed at a ``new world order'' to be mapped out by Europe's aristocracy. The conscientious butler succeeded in overlooking the fact that his boss was a leading voice for appeasement of Germany's aggression and worked strenuously for British rapport with Hitler's regime.
Another thing Stevens didn't understand, on a different level, was the romantic attraction Miss Kenton felt for him during their long years under the same palatial roof. Wrapped up in his chores, his responsibilities, and his relentless concern for proper impressions, he became a self-blinded automaton - paying attention to details but missing larger matters as intimate as Miss Kenton's love and as sweeping as his employer's fascist sympathies.
Now reality is starting to penetrate Stevens's armor, but it's clearly too late for much meaningful correction to take place.
The story of his gradual enlightenment is touching and provocative - suggesting that ``respectable'' qualities like personal loyalty, devotion to duty, and regard for tradition have a dark side so malignant that events as awful as a world war can be aided and abetted by them.
Ishiguro's novel is built around Stevens's motor trip and the realizations that dawn on him as he mulls over the past, talks with people he meets during his journey, and faces Miss Kenton after a lapse of many years. For the film version, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has made events a bit less orderly and regular, lending the story a slightly more surprising tone while retaining the underlying drama of Stevens's reluctant approach to actualities he's been dodging for so long.
LIKE the majority of Merchant Ivory movies, however, ``The Remains of the Day'' gains most of its power from Ivory's visual style - less eloquent and inventive than in his Forster films, but still a pleasure to behold - and from a bevy of sensitive performances.
Anthony Hopkins reconfirms his status as a front-line star with his subtle portrayal of Stevens, and Emma Thompson is ideally cast as his would-be lover. Also in major roles are James Fox as Stevens's former employer, Christopher Reeve as his new American boss, Peter Vaughan as his elderly father, and Michael Lonsdale as a delegate to the political conclave at Darlington Hall.
Tony Pierce-Roberts did the fine cinematography, and Richard Robbins - another Merchant Ivory regular - composed the music. Mike Nichols and John Calley joined Merchant to produce the picture. All deserve a cheer.
* ``The Remains of the Day'' has a PG rating. It contains some dialogue about sexual matters.