Synopsis: Oscar®-winners Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) and Emma Thompson (Howards End) reunite with the acclaimed Merchant Ivory filmmaking team for this extraordinary and moving story of blind devotion and repressed love.
Hopkins stars as Stevens, the perfect English butler, an ideal carried by him to fanatical lengths, as he serves his master Lord Darlington, beautifully played by James Fox (The Servant). Darlington, like many other members of the British establishment in the 1930s, is duped by the Nazis into trying to establish a rapport between themselves and the British government. Thompson stars as the estate’s housekeeper, a high-spirited, strong-minded young woman who watches the goings-on upstairs with horror.
Despite her apprehensions, she and Stevens gradually fall in love, though neither will admit it, and only give vent to their charged feelings via fierce arguments. The film is marvelously acted by a supporting cast that includes Christopher Reeve and Hugh Grant.
eyelights: its tragic romance. its gorgeous score. Anthony Hopkins. Emma Thompson. Christopher Reeves. James Fox. the political subplot. the setting. the locales. the cinematography.
eyesores: the lackluster aging of Emma Thompson’s character.
“I’d be lost without her.”
‘The Remains of the Day’ is probably one of the most moving pictures I’ve ever seen. Set concurrently in England in the late 1930s and in the late 1950s, this 1993 Merchant-Ivory production tells of a repressed romantic relationship between the butler and the housekeeper of Darlington Hall. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
I first saw it twenty years ago and was immediately taken with it. Ever since, I’d been waiting for an opportunity to buy it on DVD (however, I waited so long that it was eventually released on BD). In the meantime, I played the soundtrack to death: I first copied it to tape some twenty years ago, eventually finding a copy of the CD.
Over the years, I only saw the picture 2-3 times. One might think that other, greater pictures have been made since, but it has not lost any of its potency: the production is gorgeous, the story is poignant, the dialogues are pregnant with subtlety, as are the performances – most notably those of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
I have never seen Anthony Hopkins better than this. While he’d won a well-deserved Academy Award two years prior for his role of Hannibal Lecter in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, he proves his mastery of subtlety here, playing a man who takes pride in being proper, precise, unflappable, stiff; he’s a careerist strong on structure and rules.
A perfect example of Stevens’ devotion to his master and duty is a scene in which he’s holding up a drink for a guest who completely ignores him. But he doesn’t budge; he waits patiently, as though he were he were just a piece of furniture, designed to serve. This extends to even his personality, which he strips of opinion. He’s all business.
And yet, behind the façade, beneath the veneer, beyond all his repression, his emotional life craves for something more. It comes to the surface, if only briefly and nearly imperceptible, when his father takes ill, and it hides in his eyes when he grows attached to Miss Kenton; Hopkins reveals a twinkle or even a tremor in such moments.
It’s a must-see performance.
Emma Thompson is equally excellent – although Miss Kenton is more passionate, even as she is also proper and precise. This causes them to be at odds initially, due to the fact that she isn’t afraid to speak her mind. But her skill earns her Stevens’ respect and, eventually, his admiration. She is equally taken with him and they grow close.
Or rather, as close as two consummate professionals can get, as they never actually express affection for one another; any warmth they express comes from proximity, not from any visible or audible signal. This is compounded by the fact that given their backgrounds, they don’t even have the language to reveal their feelings to one another.
And this is what makes ‘The Remains of the Day’ so heartbreaking: the pair long for closeness, for true intimacy, but they have no idea how to go about it, married as they are to duty and propriety, and hobbled by an inability to articulate their desires. And so they go on yearning silently, never fulfilling their wishes, remaining empty.
This is where the picture starts, with Stevens taking his new master’s car to go visit Miss Kenton, having not seen her in two decades, and hoping to correct the mistake that they’ve both made. It’s a journey of hope. It’s also a journey of disappointment, as we explore Stevens and Kenton’s backstory at Darlington Hall, under its previous owner.
The over-arching story takes place at the onset of World War II, as the British were trying to negotiate terms of appeasement with the Germans. It’s at Darlington Hall that much of these talks took place, and Lord Darlington, Stevens’ master, was an idealistic aristocrat trying his best to prevent the conflict from escalating. We all know the rest.
It’s a tragic story because it’s about a well-meaning man whose naiveté is taken advantage of by the Germans diplomats, leading him to make morally incorrect decisions, destroying not just his reputation but his soul. James Fox is brilliant in the part, showing the slow degradation of the man’s spirit, as he struggles with his conscience.
Christopher Reeves plays an American Congressman who is present at the initial talks, who warns all of the guests that they should leave politics to the professionals. He’s quite good, especially in as the character’s younger self – a little less so when he returns as the new owner of Darlington Hall, partly due to poor aging make-up.
This is the biggest flaw of the production, because it didn’t allow us to navigate through time with the character effortlessly: it was quite clear that twenty years had not passed for the Congressman. This is even more so for Miss Kenton, who was not aged one bit. Mercifully, considering his amount of screen time, Stevens was done right.
The rest of the production, however, is stunning. The architecture and decor at Darlington Hall are impressive to say the least: the tall ceilings, large halls, massive libraries, long tables, all adorned with the finest art and adornments. They certainly don’t make them like that anymore; just visiting it would leave a permanent mark.
But the amount of work to maintain such a place is beyond the means of mere mortals: it’s astonishing to watch the meticulousness of the servants’ work, all the detail, the endless amount of labour just to keep the place in proper order – which includes going so far as ironing the daily newspaper so that it is perfectly flat and crisp!
All about ‘The Remains of the Day’ is larger than life: the political stakes, the human drama, the setting, the demanding work. It makes your eyes grow big with wonder. And the whole thing is given wings thanks to Richard Robbins’ sweeping score, one of the most beautiful and emotional that I’ve ever heard; it transports you there.
Ultimately, though, what really moves us is Stevens and Kenton’s story – their longing for each other from so close, and yet so far. Who hasn’t felt the spiritual disquiet of such unfulfilled desire at one point or another? Now imagine experiencing it over the course of a few years and then living with the regret of this lost opportunity?
Then imagine getting that second chance!
You can’t help but root for Stevens and Kenton: you want them to break the surface, to finally show their true feelings to one another – they are perfect for each other and they deserve each other. And so it is that ‘The Remains of the Day’ teases us as much as it does its protagonists, opening that door just enough that we dare to hope.
But hope is fleeting: ‘The Remains of the Day’ is, after all a subtle tragedy. Many wishes remain unfulfilled, many dreams never become reality, and many lives end incomplete. Such is the reality of our human drama: not everything unfolds quite the way we’d want it to, but there is nonetheless beauty and richness in these hopes and dreams.
And that is what remains, in the end.
Date of viewing: January 9, 2016