The Remains of The Day (1993)
Stevens: Anthony Hopkins
Miss Kenton: Emma Thompson
Lord Darlington: James Fox
Mr. Lewis: Christopher Reeve
Stevens’ Father: Peter Vaughan
Directed By James Ivory. Running Time: 134 Minutes. Rated PG.
For roughly a decade from 1986 to 1995, the powerful duo of India-born producer Ismail Merchant and American director James Ivory, could do almost no wrong. Almost all of their films in that span are varying degrees of excellence, but three in particular stand as cinematic classics. The first was A Room With A View in 1986 which spawned the career of Helena Bonham Carter. Howard’s End descended on moviegoers in 1992 and would become the first of several collaborations between Anthony Hopkins and his director and producer. However, the crowning achievement of the three films would also prove to be their last truly great one in A Room With A View.
The film stars Anthony Hopkins as Mr. James Stevens, the head butler to Lord Darlington in the years leading up to the second world war. Stevens is great at his work. He’s virtually indispensable and works tirelessly to make sure that every aspect of his lord’s mansion is under his personal care. But every upper-class household at the time had two people; the head butler and his equal and opposite, the housekeeper.
To Stevens dismay, there has been a recent trend of housekeepers running off with other members of staff, so when Miss Sarah Kenton interviews for the job, it’s understandable that his forecast for this pretty young woman is not favorable, and it comes across in his cool nature towards her. But his fears are unwarranted. Although they have their fair share of squabbles(all hidden behind polite words), Miss Kenton is as good at her responsibilities as Stevens to his.
As the years go by we see their relationship begin to shift. It’s been apparent that despite the age difference between the two, Miss Kenton is deeply attracted to the stoic and highly reserved Stevens. For Stevens, intimacy does not come naturally. Coming from a head butler father, it’s not surprising that Stevens is a rigid man who has devoted his life to serving others. The sad part is that a man who spends almost all of his time in the service of others, has little time to spend on himself, including his own happiness.
As Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton’s relationship faces it’s own troubles, so does the country. Shortly into the movie, a delegation of people from other countries has convened at in Lord Darlington’s estate to consider Germany. Hitler’s rise to power has just started, although war has not truly begun. Lord Darlington is a Germany sympathizer who felt the treaty of Versailles was too harsh. A lone American congressman who sees far man than these amateurs who have stuck their noses in a political realm they do not belong, fails to win them over and must watch over time as these men are proven wrong.
As this political disaster unfolds, another parallels it in the form of Miss Kenton leaving to marry a man as she fears that she will never break through Steven’s shell. The scenes near the end of her stay are heartbreaking. We see that Stevens feels. His answers become more clipped, and his manner agitated. Early on in the movie, he mentions that he doesn’t know what he would do without her. In the scope of the whole movie, and in the presence of another man, it proves to be the most open and emotional Stevens would become at any real point in admitting his feelings.
Intercut with the past is the future. We see the Darlington estate now owned by the American congressman who so valiantly tried to head off what he knew to be a mistake taking place. The man is Mr. Lewis played by Christopher Reeve in a minor, but pivotal performance. As always, Stevens now serves his new master just as well as his former who has since died.
He recieves a letter from Mrs. Kenton who has contacted him after many years to admit that her marriage has failed. Seeing a chance to right a wrong that never should have been, Steven takes what is probably his only week off in decades to drive across the country and speak his feelings as well as trying to get Mrs. Kenton to return to her old post again.
As with movies of this nature, there is no happy ending. Mrs Kenton’s daughter is with child and she has just learned. It forces her to choose to stay to be close to her daugher, and sadly her husband. Through it all, we can see that Stevens is distraught. His chance is gone now, and yet he still cannot truly express his feelings even now when an admission about his great love for her may have been all that was needed to sway her.
So Mrs Kenton leaves Mr. Stevens with tears streaming down her face as he glides away on a bus back home knowing she will never see him again. All Stevens can do is raise his hat and say farewell.
In many ways, The Remains of The Day are a warning to those who devote their whole life and being to a career and little to their own happiness. Stevens has essentially thrown away his life in the name of duty, and it’s a decision that you start to see is quietly beginning to haunt him. The Remains of The Day is a subtle, thoughtful and deeply moving film. It accomplishes more in a stare than most movies do in a speech.
The performances are about as perfect as they can ever be. Hopkins gives his most subtle performance, and one of the best performances of the decade. Emma Thompson who was just really beginning to reach the apex of her career, is his equal in every way. She brings a strong, yet vulnerable quality to Miss Kenton that in a lesser actress, may have gone unseen.
Some films are hard to digest and The Remains of The Day is one of them. It’s a slow burner. Events happen in the backround of these two dancing around one another, and some viewers may be left asking “Is that it” once the credits roll. To them I say, look closer. Like the performances, it is subtle and sometimes the impact is greater than a movie overt to it’s views and goals.