It’s a sad truth that Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins are rarely handed roles that allow them to demonstrate their true abilities. The Remains of the Day is an absolutely stunning period drama from Merchant Ivory (which sounds far more impressive than any functional “combination of last names” really should). It’s a rather beautiful look at the classically romantic British character, but also an absolutely scathing attack upon it. It’s a brilliant examination of the inherent tragedy of the stereotypical British detachment, the capacity to maintain emotional distance in order to endure whatever life has to offer. Mister Stevens is the quintessential English butler, but he’s also one of the most tragic central characters I think I’ve seen in quite some time.
Based on the celebrated novel, which my better half considers to be even better than the film, The Remains of the Day follows the life of a butler on a British estate, dealing with his own personal development and the events unfolding around him – captured through brief clips here and there, overheard conversations, glimpses into the lives of the upper classes captured through windows in doors and from the end of long banquet tables. It’s a fascinating story-telling device, and it’s handled quite well, but it’s really Stevens himself who proves the smartest asset of the whole film.
Early in the film, Mister Stevens states his own philosophy, “I don’t believe a man can consider himself fully content until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer.” That’s the extent of his own moral opinion, one way or the other. Set mostly in flashback in the build-up to the Second World War, the novel exposes any number of increasingly worrying factors surrounding Stevens’ employer, Lord Darlington. “In my philosophy, Mr. Benn, a man cannot call himself well-contented until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer,” he advises a colleague. “Of course, this assumes that one’s employer is a superior person, not only in rank, or wealth, but in moral stature.” Mister Stevens clearly believes his employer to be a “superior person … in moral stature”, because it’s not his place to question or judge.
Part of what makes the movie so fascinating is the way that it flirts around the question of whether Stevens is willfully blind to, or simply unable to see, the flaws in those he considers his social betters. When he brings his ailing father onto the house staff, despite several instances pointing to the fact that the old man is unable to work as well as he used to, Stevens refuses to even consider the possibility that his father might not be up to the tasks assigned to him. Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, tries to bring the issue to his attention, but Stevens refuses to even look – whether it’s because he doesn’t believe his father made a mistake, or is afraid of the possibility, is a matter that’s left ambiguous. It’s an irony in a character who prides himself on his clinical detachment that he seems to lose his objectivity in such matters.
Hopkins is great as Stevens. It is genuinely one of his very best performances. He’s able to so brilliantly convey the range and wealth of the character’s emotions despite the fact they are buried so deeply below the surface. There are two absolutely brilliant sequences that work because Hopkins pitches his performance perfectly – one during an important dinner scene while the butler faces a personal crisis, and another towards the end as he bids a final farewell. Either moment could have been ruined by revealing too much or too little, and it takes a great actor to know exactly how much to show.
The movie works because it is primarily a character study on Stevens, but it also gains quite a bit of depth from its historical setting. The character of Stevens takes the archetype of the “stiff upper lip” British character and picks it apart piece by piece, revealing it to be a sad – rather than a romantic – idea, and the movie demonstrates how out of touch this British sense of “honour” and “dignity” is by contextualising it in the lead-up to the Second World War. Lord Darlington is a pacifist, a man who believes that Britain can appease Nazi Germany by restoring her dignity – allowing colonial expansion into the Balkans and the re-arming of her military.
He’s a soldier who served in the First World War, and who carries his out-dated sense of “fair play” with him into the far more complicated geo-political climate left in the wake of the conflict. He recalls how he vowed to an enemy soldier, “Look here, we’re enemies now and I’ll fight you with all I’ve got. But when this wretched business is over, we shan’t have to be enemies any more and we’ll have a drink together.” His opposition to the Versailles Treaty is that he sees it as an unfair armistice forced upon a defeated foe, one deserving of more respect. It’s not that the Treaty is an attack on German honour, but on British Honour. He tells Stevens, “Wretched thing is, this Treaty is making a liar out of me.”
And so it’s the American voice at Darlington’s international peace conference who must throw cold water on this romanticism. The Congressman who, appropriately enough, made his family fortune on “dried goods”, something the British upper class seem to have no idea about. He’s ignored by the officials on all sides, treated as the kid on the block – after all, America is still relatively young. However, he is the only person to call the situation entirely accurately. “You are, all of you, amateurs,” he advises his hosts to a chilly reception. “And international affairs should never be run by gentlemen amateurs. Do you have any idea of what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could just act out of your noble instincts, are over. Europe has become the arena of realpolitik, the politics of reality. If you like: real politics. What you need is not gentlemen politicians, but real ones. You need professionals to run your affairs, or you’re headed for disaster!”
I think that’s the beauty of the story, the way that it juxtaposes the decline of the British elite – at least in terms of political influence – with the life of Stevens, a man becoming increasingly obsolete in his old age. He doesn’t seem aware of how much petrol his car needs, for example, so sheltered was his life inside Darlington. One senses he’s a bit uneasy with the somewhat casual manner of his post-War employer, taking a joke about his personal life in a slightly awkward manner – indeed, it’s fitting that he seems uncomfortable when he sees that the new owner of the estate has installed a ping-pong table in what used to be the master dining room.
Hopkins gives the central performance, but he’s surrounded by a superb cast. Emma Thompson is great as Miss Kenton, a woman who seems far more comfortable with others than Stevens could ever be. The relationship between the pair underscores the film, as both are absolutely fascinated with one another, and yet neither seems willing or able to come out and say it. There is one lovely sequence where Stevens seems about to comfort her, but can’t think of anything to say, save to remind her of the domestic chores that need doing. Both actors do a superb job, and sell the relationship (or, more appropriately, non-relationship) perfectly.
It’s also nice to see Christopher Reeve in a very prominent role here. I’m especially pleased that Reeve got billing ahead of Hugh Grant. It’s a tragedy that he never really got a chance to establish himself as an actor distinct from Richard Donner’s Superman, but he’s very good here. Indeed, the entire ensemble is fantastic, with every role seemingly cast with great care and skill. I will concede that there were moments when I found the score from Richard Robbins to be just a little bit too eighties for its own good, but the rest of the production was great.
The Remains of the Day is a truly classy piece of cinema. While it perfectly captures a moment in British history, it works at its absolute best as a character study about the perfect British butler, and why he’s not the romantic ideal that many of us might expect him to be.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | anthony hopkins, Benn, christopher reeve, emma thompson, film, mister stevens, non-review review, Remains of the Day, review, richard donner, Steven, The Remains of the Day, Versailles Treaty, world war ii