Remains of the Day
by Karl Bowman
As the sun slips below the horizon, a mature couple walks down a boardwalk, deep in thought:
Sally Kenton: There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.
Mr. Stevens: Yes, well, I’m sure we all have those thoughts from time to time.
(They sit on a bench as the pier lights come on)
Sally Kenton: They do say that for a great number of people the evening is the best part of the day. What they most look forward to.
Mr. Stevens: Oh, is that so?
Sally Kenton: What do you most look forward to, Mr. Stevens?
Stevens rattles off a quick reply, but his face shows anguish. He’s lying. In the “evening” of their lives, when they should be enjoying life, this couple can only look back with regret. The British film Remains of the Day is a beautiful tragedy that not only offers solid entertainment, but empowers us in our own pursuit of happiness.
The film is a journey – literally and figuratively. On the surface, it is about a butler traveling to the town of Cleveden, England to persuade an ex-housekeeper to rejoin his staff at an enormous English mansion. On a deeper level, it is the story of a man who is trying to set right a terrible mistake – a journey of repentance.
Director James Ivory (Howard’s End, Room With a View) invites us on the journey with a sweeping aerial shot that brings us to the imposing Darlington Hall. An estate auction is in progress and we watch as Lewis, an aging American senator (Christopher Reeve!), takes over the belongings of the former occupant, Lord Darlington. We are introduced to Stevens, the head butler (Anthony Hopkins) as he picks up a burnt piece of toast from his master’s tray. In close-up, he tries to stuff the toast in his tux pocket before Lewis notices. This is a marvelous visual clue to Stevens’ personality. Not only is he an impeccable servant, but he is willing to maintain “dignity above all”.
Stevens is also a haunted man. As we hear a letter fondly recalling the “happier days” at Darlington Hall, characters fade in and out around Mr. Stevens like ghosts of the past. One of those people is Sally Kenton (Emma Thompson), the former housekeeper and voice behind the letter.
Stevens embarks on his road trip to meet Kenton and hopefully bring her back. As he travels, the movie advances the emotional journey by flashing back to the days right before World War II. A strict hierarchy of power exists at Darlington Hall, with Lord Darlington (James Fox) as the supreme master. Directly under him is Stevens, the master of the house, and under Stevens is an army of under-butlers and household servants. But when Stevens hires Sally Kenton as the housekeeper, she upsets everything.
Stevens’ policy is to obey Darlington exactly and without question, and he expects those under him to behave in like manner. Sally, however, calls his strict decrees into question, especially in regard to personal relationships between staff members. Stevens explains in no uncertain terms that he is against relationships at work and despises those who engage in the temptation. He is so rigid that he even addresses his own father – another butler – as “Mr. Stevens.” When Sally brings a bouquet of flowers to brighten his drab office, Stevens rudely says he doesn’t care for them. He prefers to keep all such “distractions” to a minimum.
Sally is the biggest distraction in Stevens’ carefully controlled world. Not only is she good-looking, but she is vivacious and caring. When Darlington fires two Jewish refugees because of politics, Sally bravely condemns his actions. Stevens doesn’t have the guts to even agree with her, but he secretly admires Sally’s strength of character. Over time this admiration grows.
Equally intriguing is how hard Sally falls for Stevens. Already in her thirties, she feels she must be aggressive in love or she will remain unmarried. But beyond this, she really, really loves Stevens. She sees nothing wrong with expressing her affection and tries desperately to open him up, but to him this is taboo. He is the utter professional, locking his heart behind a cold, iron door. Some scenes are painful to watch as he brutally ignores her feelings, but as the movie progresses, it becomes obvious, through Anthony Hopkins’ eyes and body language, that he loves her deeply. Both Thompson and Hopkins earned Academy Award nominations and other accolades for their stirring performances.
Overarching the emotional conflict is a political one. Lord Darlington is caught in the middle of tensions between Britain, Germany and France. He feels it is his duty to stand up for Germany, who has been trying to rebuild since World War I, but some of his countrymen, including his godson Cardinal (Hugh Grant) believe he is getting too friendly with the Nazis. Darlington calls several high-profile meetings at his home where the pre-war situation becomes increasingly complex and tense. Stevens is an eyewitness to all of these events, but keeps his mouth shut. Even when asked for his take on things, he replies: “I am not in a position to assist you gentlemen in these matters.”
Other elements that are worthy of notice are the multi-layered musical score by Richard Robbins and the wonderful screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The film works beautifully on all levels, focusing us on the “heart” of the matter. I mentioned the aerial shot that begins the film because another aerial shot closes the film. Watch for the symbolism with the trapped pigeon and how it corresponds to the final shot that carries us away from Mr. Stevens. James Ivory is certainly in command of his medium. Along with the acting nods, the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, receiving a total of eight nominations. It turned out to be Steven Spielberg’s evening though; Schindler’s List swept the awards, leaving no “remains” for Mr. Ivory.
While being fully captivated by the story, we can also pull away multiple “messages” from the film. The one that hit me the strongest on this viewing is: “don’t procrastinate the day of your repentance.” This is not a pleasant lesson for anyone, but probably necessary for everyone. Through negative examples, we are hopefully turned to positive action. I am sure that all who watch this film will be glad they are not in Mr. Stevens shoes at the end of the day.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.