The Remains of the Day
1993, PG, 135 min. Directed by James Ivory. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Peter Vaughan, Hugh Grant, Michael Lonsdale.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 12, 1993
Like most Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala projects of late, Remains of the Day is a heady mix of upper-class English sensibilities and the repressed, whirling emotions that circulate hidden, often deeply so, in social settings such as these. And despite being their first production under the Columbia banner, it remains unmistakably “A Merchant Ivory Film.” In 1958, Stevens (Hopkins), the head butler at Darlington Hall, embarks on a journey to seek out the woman -- a former housekeeper in his employ, played with characteristic finesse by Oscar winner Thompson -- with whom he may have very well been in love some twenty years previous. As he travels across the verdant hillocks of country England reflecting on what might have been, we are treated to extended flashbacks of life as it was in pre-war Darlington Hall. Stevens's employer, the well-meaning yet thoroughly out of his league Lord Darlington (Fox) tries repeatedly to align Thirties Britain with an emerging, economically revitalized Nazi Germany. Darlington and his continental compatriots, are sure there will be no war, and even in the face of the touchy “Jewish problem,” he seems aghast at the notion that anything might be amiss at these private conferences he holds on the grounds. Stevens, as befits his station, is entirely out of the loop, preferring instead to act as the archetypal gentleman's gentleman, bustling about the house and trying to keep the scullery maids away from the groundskeepers. Miss Kenton, the housekeeper (Thompson), tries, in vain, to lure Stevens out of his butlerian shell, sensing that there may well be a highly passionate man inside there somewhere. Stevens, again as befits his station, will allow no such thing. Love -- or even the hint of it -- is not a consideration of his. Stoic in the extreme, he carries on with his duties, even in the face of the fall of Lord Darlington due to wartime charges of possible treason. Hopkins is brilliant here, absolutely convincing, with tiny, timeless mannerisms, twitches, and abrupt about-faces. His Stevens is no fanciful Jeeves, ready to save master Bertie from himself at a moment's notice. Instead, Hopkins plays him as though he were Darlington Hall's flesh and blood cornerstone, without whom the building and all it stands for, might collapse. Traveling cross-country to meet Miss Kenton 20 years later, he is a man brimming over with regret, a man who has the niggling feeling that something of tremendous import may very well have been passed over, and is now unattainable. Hopkins masters it all, as does Thompson, whose smaller, supporting role, is as fully realized as any of her others. Some people will no doubt find the whole Merchant-Ivory ethos a bit highbrow for their taste, and this will prove to be no exception. Gorgeously lensed and delightfully structured, however, this is, in a word, wonderful.