Remains of the Day: Duty Above All

remainsofthedayIt happens, although not very often, that a filmmaker creates two masterpieces in a row. James Ivory and his team had barely released and received Oscars for Howards End (1992) when they made The Remains of the Day. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that virtually everyone who was involved in the E.M. Forster adaptation also labored on this one, a filmization of a much more recent book. Both films share not only key crew members and themes, but most visibly stars – Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson reunited for that most restrained of love stories.

In the 1950s, Mr. Stevens (Hopkins), the butler of Darlington Hall, takes some time off and journeys to a small English town where he is to meet Sally Kenton (Thompson), who is now Mrs. Benn. Perhaps he can talk her into returning to Darlington Hall as housekeeper. During his trip, Mr. Stevens’s thoughts wander back to those years in the 1930s when the manor was owned by Lord Darlington (James Fox) and Miss Kenton came to work there. An admirer of Germany, the lord was desperately trying to ease tensions between the German leadership and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, thoughtlessly entertaining Nazi-friendly guests and flirting with anti-Semitic notions. Mr. Stevens’s job was to remain as helpful and invisible as possible, displaying almost no emotions whatsoever, not even when his own father (Peter Vaughan) was employed as a footman and subsequently fell ill.

As Miss Kenton tried to figure out what motivated the impossibly cold head butler, Darlington Hall prepared for a major conference where representatives from Britain, France, Germany and the United States were to discuss how to promote peace…

Foundations are crumbling
I hadn’t seen this film for almost twenty years, but it’s hard not to be instantly drawn into its world, set in a time that was about to change. Howards End portrayed an era when the British class society remained strong. This film shows that the foundations are still there decades later, but crumbling; after the war, Lord Darlington loses everything and his manor is purchased by an American. The upper class is viewed by Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as pitiful, consisting of foolish and arrogant men who don’t know any better, which is pointed out in a memorable scene by Christopher Reeve’s American participant at the peace conference.

The film received some criticism for not digging as deep as the novel, but the filmmakers really do honor its themes. Mr. Stevens may be “invisible” but he’s front and center of the story, sometimes challenged by others, as when Lord Darlington tells him to fire two recently-employed Jewish girls for no good reason. Apart from politics, the film also wants us to ponder the butler’s life as a whole. Is he unhappy, or could this devotion to duty be all that he wants from life? There’s a few beautifully conceived scenes between him and Miss Kenton that indicate otherwise (especially one of the final shots that echo Brief Encounter (1945)), but the answer is not obvious.

Hopkins plays Stevens with a polite demeanor that reveals nothing but still allows for plenty of interpretation. Thompson’s effort needs to be more emotional and she acquits herself very nicely. Reeve is also worth a look in his last notable role before the accident that made him a quadriplegic.

Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts expertly captures the stately English countryside with a hint of darkness. Fans of Downton Abbey will eat this up… and if they have any sense, they will demand from the ITV drama and its creator Julian Fellowes to up their game. 

The Remains of the Day 1993-U.S. 135 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Mike Nichols, John Calley, Ismail Merchant. Directed by James Ivory. Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Novel: Kazuo Ishiguro. Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts. Music: Richard Robbins. Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, John Bright. Cast: Anthony Hopkins (James Stevens), Emma Thompson (Sarah “Sally” Kenton), James Fox (Lord Darlington), Christopher Reeve, Peter Vaughan, Hugh Grant… Michael Lonsdale.

Trivia: Jeremy Irons and Anjelica Huston were allegedly considered for roles. The original version of the script was written by Harold Pinter, meant for Mike Nichols to direct.

Last word: “It sounds pretentious to say it’s Chekhovian, but, really, so much is said by not being said. Stevens and Miss Kenton discuss the most ridiculous things, like jugs and dust, and underneath them this passionate and tragic story is being staged. She falls in love with him, and that is her downfall, because she cannot crack his walnut carapace. It’s about one of the most important things of all: you have to say to people you love them. Otherwise they go away, and suddenly you find you’ve come to the end of your life, and it’s too late.” (Thompson, This Distracted Globe)

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