“Why Mr. Stevens? Why must you always hide what you feel?” – Ms. Kenton
The only Merchant Ivory production worth immortalizing. The Remains of the Day (1993) features Anthony Hopkins in the portrait of a butler who during his entire existence places care for his British master before his own life. Edward Fox is Lord Darlington, a stuffed shirt aristocrat, who is also a Nazi sympathizer pre-World War II. Emma Thompson is the head housekeeper Ms. Kenton whom he shares a fondness. She still believes in love, is anti-Nazi, but doesn’t leave the manor of Darlington Hall because she has no family and nowhere else to go. But she still has pride in her job, which to him matters admirably.
Mr. Stephens puts so much over-emphasis on serving Lord Darlington that duty takes priority over his father’s illness. Mr. Stephens also abides his master’s orders without challenging them. When two housemaids are found to be Jewish, they are ordered to be dismissed, which lead to certain life demise for the two young women. Some will find it difficult to go along with a film whose protagonist has no backbone. But he is so proper, though, with such dedication to precision and formality!
What are the regrets of the older Mr. Stephens, you ask? The film uses a flashback structure, a tad unwieldy structure honestly, of Mr. Stephens travelling across England in 1958 to reacquaint himself with friend and comrade Ms. Kenton, who had a demure crush on his truly. He is asked by fellow Brits about how it felt to serve a Nazi sympathizer. Politics were never his forte, he confesses. But certainly he has a blithe opinion.
And how about Ms. Kenton? Only a friendship was established between them, one muses, and yet there were the most subtle hints of longing. I think the film in retrospect is a portrait of a man terrified of sexual contact. Ms. Kenton would have been the one woman in the world who could have filled the void of providing some sort of contact. Mr. Stephens though has only ever been comfortable with mastering his occupational duties. The idea of a man afraid his entire lifetime of touching or feeling is incredibly sad.
When it is at its best, “Remains” is mesmerizing. I say this with a special nod to Richard Robbins’ music score which is always expressing chords of melancholy and evocations of lost connections. Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of the source novel, is of course equally responsible for such themes and moods.
Christopher Reeve plays the American Mr. Lewis, who gallantly takes over Darlington Hall. Hopkins shares his final scene with Reeve, as he puts over-emoting concern to remove a trespassing pigeon from the manor. That’s the metaphor: the pigeon has more importance than his own life, at least that’s how he regards himself. Rigid and proper, with most emotions removed to uphold proper British “dignity,” makes Hopkins’ Mr. Stephens character a fascinating vexed character. To me, this was the best performance of Hopkins’ career with “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), the exception.
This is the only Ismail Merchant & James Ivory film that I outright love. “Remains” has appeal to big thinkers out there and is to be studied, admired and haunted by. I do prefer “A Room with a View” (1986) over “Howards End” (1992) however, if I had to choose another Merchant & Ivory film to recommend.
138 Minutes. Rated PG.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / FOOD FOR THOUGHT / FALL MOVIE
Film Cousins: “The Garden of the Finzi Continis” (1970, Italy); “The Age of Innocence” (1993); “Atonement” (2007); “The King’s Speech” (2010).