“In my philosophy . . . a man cannot call himself well-contented until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer.” ——James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins)
That such a character as James Stevens, who, today, would be called a “stuffed shirt”—then, in the 1930’s, more politely termed “over-dedicated”—could be the focus of a fascinating movie that became an immense success is . . . well, amazing. From Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins becomes the embodiment of Stevens, head butler at an English manor, Darlington Hall.
The film’s main setting is the decade after the Downton Abbey series ended in 1929, and it contrasts a similar view of upstairs/downstairs life, the leisure-loving aristocrats and their beleaguered servants.
The plot is seething with Stevens’ repressed, if hardly recognizable passions (conceivably even unrecognized by him), secondhand prejudices derived from Lord Darlington and, most central to the plot, a foolish subservience to this one master and to his own ideal of duty. Too focused on his job to notice the Nazi pacifist meetings occurring under his nose in the Hall, and possessing little sense of the outside world, Stevens’ ignorance is fatally exposed when a nasty Fascist guest (Patrick Godfrey) asks his opinion of the international situation. To all three questions, Steven replies, “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m unable to be of assistance in this matter.” This ignorance proves, the guest boasts, that the uneducated masses don’t deserve universal suffrage.
And the butler is unconcerned by his ignorance, if he even acknowledges it in himself: it’s a small sacrifice to pay for the greater good—service, service, service above all, and allegiance, as he says, to “a superior person, not only in rank, or wealth, but in moral stature,” whom he believes is epitomized in Lord Darlington.
Of course, Hopkins isn’t alone in making this methodically paced film such an accomplished drama, with its overtones of comedy and satire. He has help from a number of individuals, on and off screen. The most conspicuous contributor is Emma Thompson, when, as the housekeeper Miss Kenton, she becomes Stevens’ nemesis, unafraid to defy his authority, too often ready to tease his eccentricities and, strangely, equally as much an individual.
Soon after her arrival, she becomes his indispensable ally in maintaining the large household, then gradually his secret love. But because of his mixed-up personality and backward reasoning—that “stuffed shirt” complex—he never permits love to seep into his consciousness, nor, least of all, to confess it to her.
He does come close on one occasion, however, when he says to a former servant, “I’d be lost without her.” As if he senses an unguarded feeling has somehow slipped out, he corrects himself. “A first-rate housekeeper is essential in a house like this . . . ”
Despite its setting in the twentieth century, before and after World War II, The Remains of the Day has the ambiance of a period piece. Period pictures of a similar texture and milieu have been the collaborative specialty of director James Ivory and the late producer Ismail Merchant. Their films include The Europeans (1979), Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980), The Bostonians (1984), A Room with a View (1985), Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990) and Howards End (1992), Hopkins and Thompson’s first appearance together. A third collaborator is composer Richard Robbins, who scored each of the films.
Essentially a flashback, The Remains of the Day begins in the present, the present being, in this case, 1958. Lord Darlington (James Fox,A Passage to India ), a denounced Nazi sympathizer during the 1930s, has died and his English manor has been sold to a retired American Congressman, Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve).
Head butler Stevens has received a letter from former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who, twenty years before, had left her position to marry, becoming Mrs. Benn. Hoping to return to domestic service and suggesting they meet, she reads her letter to Stevens during a long camera-track down the lane to the Hall as Lewis arrives. Valuable paintings, earlier dispersed from the estate but bought by Lewis, are now being unloaded.
The new owner takes his breakfast in bathrobe and with tousled hair. Whether the attending, always proper Stevens has an opinion about this unaccustomed informality, it is not his place to say. When Stevens makes an adjunct to a comment, “if I may say so,” Lewis, unintentionally perhaps, mocks him, “Yes, you ‘may say so.’ ”
The butler says he is thinking of taking a holiday to the West Country and meet Miss Kenton in Clevedon. “Absolutely,” the relaxed Lewis replies. “Certainly, take a break, see the world. . . . I tell you what, you take the car. . . . You and that Daimier belong together.” As Stevens drives away, Lewis even takes a photograph of the departing car.
As the butler drives along, an abrupt flashback—no old-fashioned dissolve—reverts to the 1930s and Miss Kenton’s arrival at Darlington Hall, on a bicycle as hounds and horsemen depart for a fox hunt. “It was never a sport his lordship enjoyed or approved of,” Stevens writes in his answer to her letter.
Immediately, even during the lady’s job interview, the two are at odds. For her part, she seems to challenge Stevens’ rules, revealing his worst sides—the arrogance, obstinacy and lack of humor. He objects to the flowers she brings to his room to “cheer things up.”
Later, as she begins her duties, he is indifferent to her finding a dustpan and broom carelessly left on a landing, refuses to even turn to look at a misplaced Chinese statue and ignores her warnings that his father (Peter Vaughan), working as under butler, is unable to handle his duties—until he trips carrying a tray. Even when his father lies dying, the son puts his duties and responsibilities to Lord Darlington first.
(Incidentally, although Vaughan appeared in many Charles Dickens TV series on British TV and had the ideal face and presence for Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations , he was cast as lawyer Jaggers.)
While the Stevens/Kenton relationship is ongoing, Lord Darlington is frequently entertaining politicians and aristocrats who lean, as he does, toward placating the Nazis in efforts to avoid another war. He first dismisses two Jewish servants (Emma Lewis and Joanna Joseph) because “larger issues are at stake.”
The French envoy, Dupont D’Ivry (Michael Lonsdale, Martin Bormann in the TV movie The Bunker , which earned Hopkins an Emmy as Hitler), is mostly concerned with his sore feet and delivers half-hearted pledges of peace toward the Germans. Lewis, who was a young U.S. Congressman in 1935, warns the assembly, “What you need is not gentlemen politicians [like yourselves], but real ones. You need professionals, or you’re headed for disaster.”
Stevens has the rather dubious task, pressed upon him by Darlington, of instructing his godson, Cardinal (Hugh Grant), on the facts of life. Unfortunately, Cardinal never quite penetrates Stevens’ awkward and opaque analogy of “ducks and geese,” “the birds and the flowers . . . or the shrubs . . . ,” and says in response, “But I’m more of a fish man. . . . I know all about fish, freshwater and salt.”
The tables are somewhat turned when, later, Cardinal, a journalist, asks if Stevens isn’t curious, or even concerned, about what goes on at these assemblies, the pawn his lordship has become for the Nazis. “It’s not my place,” he replies, “to be curious about such matters.”
Meanwhile, relations between Stevens and Kenton are growing warmer, certainly for the housekeeper, who has come to love him. Why is a definite wonder, and that this love may be unconvincing to some viewers is understandable—and a weakness of the plot. The two servants even share evening drinks of cocoa before a fire, until he misinterprets her comment of being “tired” and declares they will henceforth communicate only during the day, by written message, if necessary. How much further can he separate himself from this woman he is supposed to love?
On her day off, Kenton begins seeing a former co-worker (Tim Pigott-Smith, best-remembered for the British TV series The Jewel in the Crown). She tests Stevens for some reaction, a sign of love, first announcing she’s seeing someone, and receiving only a “good luck,” then that she is engaged and will be leaving. He is still indifferent. “After all the years I have been here,” she asks, “you have nothing else to say?” “You have,” he replies, “my warmest congratulations.”
The film now returning to 1958, Stevens meets Mrs. Benn at the Sea View Hotel. As they share tea and cakes, he updates her on Darlington’s ruin and demise, Cardinal’s death in the war and the estate’s new staff problems. She informs him that, although she had considered returning to service, now that her daughter Catherine is expecting, she wishes to be near her grandchild. Stevens takes the news impassively, with only a flinch of his eyes, a major sign of emotion for him.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she says.
“It was so nice to see you.”
“It was a pleasure to see you again.”
Back at Darlington Hall, in the room that held the diplomatic assemblies back in 1935, Lewis remembers how “we delivered ourselves of our principles,” and asks Stevens if he recalls what he said, since he doesn’t. True to form, he replies, “I’m sorry, sir, I was too busy serving to listen to the speeches.”
A pigeon, trapped in the fireplace, is chased by the two men and eventually caught by Lewis, who tosses it skyward from the French doors. Stevens, promptly closes the doors and, from outside, is seen looking out through a pane, across the lawn. He then turns back into the house. In a dissolve from an overhead shot to an aerial one, the camera pulls away from Darlington Hall and back down the drive, in reverse of the opening.
If the film has a problem, it is with the script. Some scenes go on too long—for example, the argument over the Chinese statue and Kenton’s persistence in knowing what book Stevens is reading—“Is it racy?” she asks—although it is where the two come the closest to a kiss. A subplot romance between two servants (played by Ben Chaplin and Lena Headey), though brief, is unnecessary.
In Remains, composer Robbins’ music has a continuing similarity—sounds kinder than the more applicable “sameness”—whatever the scene. Mostly in a slow tempo, there are inevitably two ideas, a theme of sorts on top, usually lyrical, sometimes little more than a series of notes and often dispassionate, and, below, in lower instruments, an undertow of agitation, unrest or the unresolved.
From early in his career, Anthony Hopkins, in movies and TV, has played men of history, starting in 1968 with Richard (I) of England, then Lloyd George, Adolf Hitler, C.S. Lewis, William Bligh, Richard Nixon, John Quincy Adams, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Hitchcock. And, while not historical, in the 1991 TV version of Great Expectations, he was ideally cast as Magwitch.
Although all the stars are exceptional in their roles, most of Remains rests upon the credibility of Hopkins. Far from an historical figure that would have an anchoring in fact and reality, James Stevens is a writer’s creation. If the audience can accept this butler, with his unreadable face, guarded words, severe dispassion and apparently an unattractive nonentity to everyone except Miss Kenton, then accepting the other characters should be easy.
James Stevens might well be the greatest challenge of Hopkins’ career. If Stevens does emerge as real, it might well depend upon whether that audience likes the butler of Darlington Hall, whatever his faults and despite his implausibilities.