Alien to our experience but part of our heritage, the profession of the perfect English butler is a complicated business that is entrusted here to very talented hands that turn it into a profoundly sad movie.
"The Remains of the Day" is a meandering walk through the kind of British labyrinth that Americans love to explore. Alien to our experience but part of our heritage, the profession of the perfect English butler is a complicated business that is entrusted here to very talented hands that turn it into a profoundly sad movie. Ruth Prawer wrote the screenplay based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory touched it with their magical details, and Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson play the downstairs couple with heartbreaking restraint.
The film opens in a marvelous series of cross cuts of the old and new days of Darlington Hall seen through the memory of head butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) as he drives cross country to meet his former head housekeeper, Miss Kenton, hoping to lure her back to her old job. The audience embarks on the drive with Stevens in hope and finishes the journey in despair.
Stevens thinks back on the '30s as the malleable Lord Darlington (James Fox) hosts an assortment of appeasement minded Englishmen and Germans in front of the great fire in his library. The lone dissenting voice is raised by a young American, Mr. Lewis (in a fine performance by Christopher Reeve) who brings American candor to the world of English codes.
The gathering gives the Merchant Ivory team the occasion for raising the talents of Stevens and his staff to perfect service pitch. Placement of goblets is measured by ruler, a silver cup is held for a mounted rider by an under-butler, The London Times is ironed, page by page. Avoidance of error is the law of Stevens' life. Of what is said upstairs by the fire, "It is not my place to be curious about such matters," he says crisply. When Stevens takes a moment to attend his dying father, he touches the old man's hand briefly with his fingers and returns immediately to work.
Stevens loves Miss Kenton from the moment she strides down the pantry hall to become head housekeeper, though not a single gesture or word betrays his feeling. "You mean a great deal to this house, Miss Kenton, you are extremely important to this house," is his expression of love. She returns his love but finds no way to break the reserve of a man who has erased his own needs. There is nobility in Stevens' intelligence and subtlety, and it is this that Miss Kenton understands.
In this story of unrealized love, Stevens is unable to compromise the dignity, deference and discretion that inform his concept of duty. As he drives off into the English rain, all hope for self over duty or even a blend of the two goes with him. This is grim territory for creative actors, but Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins draw superb portraits of an honorable man and woman caught in the culture of their time and circumstance.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 487
Studio: Merchant Ivory
Copyright (c) Illusion
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