The films of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant are sometimes criticized for being a bit too bloodless - for being respectful to esteemed literary source material to the point of rendering it inert. While I think the duo's hits slightly outnumber their misses, few could argue that they were anything other than the perfect team to adapt Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. The novel was supposedly “unfilmable” (a label tossed at many novels that don't read like elaborate screenplays), relying as it did on the internal monologue of a character who speaks infrequently and who often does his best to shrink into the background. Many directors might have taken the dull, obvious route of simply having that character narrate the film and tell us everything he's thinking. Ivory – working from a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – always finds a way to visually convey the emotional subtext of each scene. It helps that he has such remarkable actors at his disposal.
The film centers on the life of James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs), who serves as head butler for the wealthy Lord Darlington (James Fox, Patriot Games). Darlington Hall is a lavish estate which frequently welcomes distinguished visitors, and Stevens works tirelessly to ensure that every part of the estate is carefully tended to. He keeps a watchful eye on Lord Darlington's large staff, and has won the undying trust and respect of his employer. Stevens has been with Lord Darlington for decades, but he's seen many other staff members come and go over the years. In the mid-1930s, he oversees the hiring of a new housekeeper: Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson, Much Ado About Nothing), an exceptionally skilled young woman who finds Stevens' introverted personality both curious and a little frustrating.
Anthony Hopkins has delivered many fine performances over the course of his long career, but I feel comfortable declaring his turn as Stevens to be his greatest work. He's the perfect embodiment of a British butler: intelligent, quiet, soft-spoken and polite to a fault. He only speaks when it's absolutely necessary, he keeps his emotions tucked away and he offers no personal opinions on any of the political discussions held within the house. Whatever Lord Darlington says is right, he accepts. These qualities make Stevens remarkably good at his job, but they are also responsible for the fact that his life is ultimately a tragedy: he's a man incapable of telling the people he cares about how he really feels.
There are three key moments in the film in which Stevens knows he ought to speak up, but remains silent. One is political, the other two are personal. All three involve the most important people in his life. Let's take a look at them individually.
1. Lord Darlington: Much of the film is set in the days building up to World War II, and Lord Darlington disapproves of the way that his German acquaintances have been treated by Great Britain in the wake of the previous war. As a result, he attempts to use his status and influence to help his country broker a policy of appeasement with Germany. It becomes increasingly evident that the Nazis are an unsavory bunch, but Darlington feels uneasy about the notion of abandoning his carefully-cultivated allies. Stevens sees and understands what's happening, but pushes his feelings aside. This becomes particularly difficult when Darlington asks him to fire two employees of Jewish descent, but Stevens remains silent and does his job. He is Darlington's most trusted advisor, but he can't bring himself to question his employer's personal beliefs.
2. Mr. Stevens, Sr.: Early in the film, Stevens persuades Darlington to hire his elderly father William (Peter Vaughan, Game of Thrones) as an underbutler. Watching the elder Stevens, we see where the young Stevens gets much of his personality: both are stubborn, understated, hard-working and professional. Even so, William is getting too old to be doing the sort of work he's been asked to do, and often ends up making the sort of careless mistakes that wouldn't be tolerated from any other employee. There's a heartwrenching moment in which an ailing William finally opens up to his son, and tells him the sort of things that he ought to have told him long ago. Deep down, Stevens knows he should reciprocate – and yet, he shoves his emotions aside. “We'll talk again in the morning,” he says, knowing full well they may never speak again.
3. Miss Kenton: The relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton is much different from the previous two. For one thing, she actually makes a direct attempt to persuade Stevens to open up to her, and seeks to dig beneath his stony surface. For another, Stevens slowly begins to develop feelings for Miss Kenton, albeit feelings he dare not speak. The more she pushes him, the more he retreats. Hopkins and Thompson play their scenes together with such agonizing honesty, beginning with playful moments of light humor and ending with scenes filled with such a strong emotional undercurrent that you feel as if your heart might explode. The great love stories are usually those which find the two lovers tragically separated. The tragedy is all the more wrenching when it's something as simple and insurmountable as manners and protocol getting in the way.
Most of the film is presented as a series of flashbacks, with occasional “present-day” scenes (set sometime in the 1950s) featuring Stevens and his new American employer Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve, Superman: The Movie). Lewis is the film's most emotionally open character, no doubt due in part to the cultural climate of his home country. It's while in his employ that Stevens decides to make a trip – the first big trip he's made in his life – in an effort to rectify the mistakes of the past. Is it Lewis that inspires this, or Stevens' realization that he's in the twilight of his life? Either way, these scenes quietly reveal hard truths about the years that remain unseen: when people ask about Lord Darlington, Stevens claims that he never knew the man.
I mentioned earlier that Ivory's restrained direction is one of the film's assets. That's largely because it serves as a potent mirror of Stevens' reserved demeanor – the film resists grand gestures or flourishes (and embraces polished dignity) as insistently as its central character. Precious few of the characters ever say what is really on their minds, instead using business as an excuse to avoid talking about what they'd really like to talk about. In one devastating scene, Stevens attempts to work up the nerve to comfort Miss Kenton, but instead winds up muttering about a room that needs dusting. “I'll take care of it,” she sniffs, quietly crushed as his inability to offer even half-hearted consolation. Watching every opportunity these characters miss can be painful, but it also serves as an unforgettable reminder that we should never let our desire to do the appropriate thing get in the way of our ability to do the right thing.
The Remains of the Day
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Year: 1993