The Remains of the Day
out of ****
the role of the Butler of a rich estate, whose principal job,
according to Anthony Hopkins’ research as he prepared for
this role, is to make the room emptier with his presence than
it was before he entered. As a butler, your reason to exist, above
all other motives, is to provide efficiency in the house for the
master that you serve—to keep things clean, to deliver the
meals, to run the staff, and to remain an invisible face in the
background that only speaks when he is spoken to. Your significance,
it seems, is in your fierce devotion to being insignificant to
all but one master, whose own significance is supposed to mean
nothing to you, except that he is pleased with your services.
Such a role leaves little room for questioning your master’s
morality, especially when it should be called into question, and
even less room for romance or even heartfelt friendships.
Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, from the novel
by Kazuo Ishiguro, certainly concerns itself with issues of the
master’s morality and the butler’s would-be love affairs,
but it is really interested in neither of these topics, except
to use them as springboards to jump into this often heartbreaking
character study of one man inexplicably determined to keep the
rooms that he inhabits as empty as possible. This is a period
piece, set in the British countryside circa World War II and concerning
many secret meetings with Nazis and their sympathizers in the
dark rooms of one Lord Darlington’s (James Fox) estate.
Yet the film is distant from these events, because Darlington’s
butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) remains distant. His duty is
to but serve Lord Darlington, a “good man” according
to Stevens, and he leaves it at that: Stevens will never question
the dark proceedings in the house because he considers it neither
his duty nor his place.
plot takes place within a period over twenty years, though it
plays in reverse: We are introduced to Stevens towards the end
of his life, long after the war and after the death of Lord Darlington.
Stevens is still in charge of the small staff of Darlington Hall,
which is now the home of an American named Lewis (Christopher
Reeve), a laid-back retired senator and former political adversary
of Lord Darlington. Stevens is clearly effective at his job and
commands the respect of all other staff members; we understand
immediately that he has been the chief butler of the estate seemingly
for most of his adult life, and even Lewis looks on utterly perplexed
at Stevens’ devotion to the place. We also immediately see
that the butler is a sad, almost tragic character, haunted by
the ghosts of the past that reveal themselves when he peeps through
an eyehole or glances out a window. He is a man rich with history
and stories—stories that we see in flashbacks—but
he has no one to share them with.
most recurring ghost belongs to Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), the
head maid who at one point shared duties with Stevens. The film
eventually becomes two overlapping stories, the first of which
concerns an older Stevens on his way to a reunion with Miss Kenton
after ten years, and the second of which tells the earlier story
of their working relationship and the eventual fall of their manor’s
reputation, as Lord Darlington aligns himself with Nazi sympathizers
during World War II. During the course of this storyline, Stevens
and Miss Kenton will fall in love, Stevens will never act on this
conviction (to Miss Kenton’s tearful chagrin), and Lord
Darlington’s gamble will fail and his reputation will diminish.
But as I have stated, do not allow yourself to believe that this
film is about any of these topics—they are merely devices
used to study Stevens, the quiet but sturdy butler who is aware
that Lord Darlington is misguided but will not challenge his Lord’s
ethics, and who realizes that he is in love with Miss Kenton but
cannot bring himself to abandon his principals, forsake his duty,
and act on his emotion.
the only performance to truly count here (though everyone is in
top form), appropriately portrays Stevens as a vacuum of emotions,
capable of bringing any laughter or pleasantry to a dead halt
simply by entering into a room. His straight posture, stone-like
expression, and almost weasel-like face make it impossible to
determine, when he is on duty, any sort of emotionality emoting
from his shell. This is the way that he prefers his social image.
To Darlington, Stevens is the most trustworthy man in his household,
because of his unwillingness to bend his code of conduct—even
as the Lord’s own moral code is questionable at best. In
the 1950s sequences, we see this air of authority leave Stevens
as he ventures out of the Manor to visit Miss Kenton, and it is
a notable, almost jarring change: Suddenly, no longer trapped
within the claustrophobic manor in which he has spent nearly all
of his life, Stevens has no idea how to react; in fact, he seems
hard pressed to find any reason to react to anything
at all. This is a careful performance from Hopkins, who must deliver
at once the epitome of the best of domestic service and the underlining
pathos of a man who has never lived a day in his life.
Miss Kenton sees more behind Stevens’ cold authority, and
seems to detect a genuine kindness behind his eyes. She devotes
herself to finding the man behind the crust, and through their
years of working together, she is able to periodically strip away
the layers of duty and see brief glimpses of Stevens’ soul.
To the head maid, the butler is an enigma and a source of stability
in a house that is otherwise crumbling under the weight of its
growing corruption. There is an interesting series of scenes in
which Miss Kenton frets over Lord Darlington’s dismissal
of two Jewish maids, fired because of their nationality, and Stevens,
though he also dislikes this decision, will not address it. Miss
Kenton initially tells Stevens that if the Jewish girls go, then
she will go as well. Later, when Stevens notes that Miss Kenton
has indeed not left, she replies, “I know. I’m
weak.” Such moments reveals the contrast between the two:
Miss Kenton is vocal but not firm. Stevens is firm but not vocal.
The relationship is carefully written, considering the level of
attraction between them that we instantly sense but is never directly
stated. Of course, by the end of the film, Miss Kenton is fully
prepared to reveal her feelings, but what good would it do when
the object of her attraction is completely incapable of admitting
how he feels?
key scenes to understanding Stevens focus on his relationship
with his ailing father (Peter Vaughan), also a butler at the manor.
Stevens, Sr. provides the backbone to the story by, in a few sequences,
essentially sealing his son’s fate by revealing his own.
Stevens, Sr. has also been a butler all of his life, and in his
final days, a deep-seeded regret shadows his soul. He doesn’t
seem to regret a life of domestic service so much as he curses
himself for never being able to recognize the joys of life beyond
his duties. In the film’s most heartbreaking moment, the
dying father tries to communicate his emotions to his son, but
he is incapable of wording feelings that he has never discussed
before. Stevens, Jr. is slow to catch on: Upon being informed
on his father’s death, he simply continues with his duties,
saying with only the subtlest hint of sadness, “He would
have wanted me to continue with my work.” Perhaps not, as
the previous scene tragically indicates.
Ivory knows how to use the camera to make a film that takes place
almost exclusively within the walls of Darlington Hall. The atmosphere
is dark and musty, and the angles are often so tight that the
house seems to be slowly suffocating its residents to death. Even
in moments featuring dozens of cast members sitting about in the
gigantic dining hall, Ivory shows us the heat bursting from a
fireplace and the sweat dripping off of the servants as they walk
about the room, refilling drinks, bringing in trays, etc. This
is a manor that runs so much by routine and efficiency that it
seems likely to cave in on itself if a feather were to fall in
a place where it does not go. Occasionally, Ivory contrasts this
tightness with long shots of Stevens by himself, often in the
center of an empty room or in a garden, either in quiet contemplation
or keeping himself busy with his duties. If the tightness of the
manor seems unable to comfortably contain all of its residents,
these moments in which Stevens is alone in gigantic spaces seem
even more closed and isolated. He is an island, totally to himself.
I watched The Remains of the Day, I actually found myself
surprised with how much I likened it to Martin Scorsese’s
Taxi Driver. This film also features a setting represented
in painstaking details—the hellish slums of New York City’s
night life—but it does not really concern itself with reveal
the inner workings of the city. Instead, its focus is on the crass,
unkempt Travis Bickle, one seemingly insignificant taxi driver
coasting through the night: a man so intensely dedicated to his
ideals that it leads to emotional repression that can only be
unleashed through acts of extreme violence. New York is the background
in which Bickle is seen, but the film’s thesis has nothing
to do with New York and everything to do with the weathering of
a lonely man’s soul.
Stevens is not a man prone to acts of violence, but his emotional
repression does lead to extreme sadness and isolation, and Darlington
Hall and its World War II intrigue are merely the backdrops that
help reveal just how isolated and sad Stevens truly is. In the
final moments, as he meets with Miss Kenton and reminisces about
their years of service together, Stevens finally understands the
warnings that his dying father tried to leave with him, and his
face suddenly looks so very, very sad and helpless. The whole
film has led up to this unspoken moment of realization, and its
fate is therefore to bathe us in Stevens’ sadness: Here
is one of the bleakest pictures ever made of a lonely man who
has realized too late the opportunities that he has missed. In
a way, Stevens is Travis Bickle’s alter ego—he is
dignified, well-manicured, and passive—but The Remains
of the Day ultimately makes the same point as Taxi Driver:
Some men are islands, and the reasons why are inexplicable,
and the cure is non-existent.
Anthony Hopkins: Stevens
Emma Thompson: Ms. Kenton
James Fox: Lord Darlington
Peter Vaughan: Stevens, Sr.
Christopher Reeve: Senator Lewis
Hugh Grant: Cardinal
Columbia Pictures presents
a film by Merchant Ivory Productions. Directed by James Ivory.
Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Rated PG (contains no offensive material). Running time: 134 minutes.
Original United States theatrical release date: November 5, 1993.
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