THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. (1993) A MERCHANT-IVORY PRODUCTION. DIRECTED BY JAMES IVORY. BASED ON THE NOVEL BY KAZUO ISHIGURO. SCREENPLAY BY RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA.
STARRING ANTHONY HOPKINS, EMMA THOMPSON, JAMES FOX, HUGH GRANT, CHRISTOPHER REEVE, PETER VAUGHAN, PIP TORRENS, JOHN SAVIDENT, LENA HEADEY AND BEN CHAPLIN.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This is an utterly gorgeous film, visually and in just about every way you can think of. It’s beautifully-scripted and acted and the shots of the sumptuous and luxurious Darlington Hall are breath-taking, though, interestingly enough, five or so English country houses were used in the filming of the magnificent hall.
The film is based on the best-selling novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I have the loveliest memories of watching the film in the dying light of a sunny November day several winters in a row and I’ll probably always associate it with that time of year.
Anthony Hopkins turns in a masterful performance as Mr. James Stevens, butler to Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall in the England of the 1930s and 1940s. Stevens is the perfect butler. The consummate professional. Discreet, efficient, born to serve and, most importantly, putting his job above all else.
A real-life butler was consulted in the making of the film and apparently Anthony Hopkins asked him if he had any ‘tips’ on buttling. When a butler is in a room, the consultant advised, it must seem emptier than before. You could certainly say that of Mr. Stevens, the most unobtrusive butler imaginable.
His main goal in life seems to be to ease Lord Darlington’s passage through his life, to the point where he is willing to sacrifice his own chances of love and a family and a personal life of his own.
He clearly gets this devotion to duty from his stiff-upper-lipped elderly father, Mr. William Stevens, who ‘buttled’ his butt off his entire life and who, in fact, will die ‘buttling.’ Ooops. Spoiler alert, haha. Mr. Stevens the Elder is exquisitely played by the wonderful Peter Vaughan of PORRIDGE and A GHOST STORY AT CHRISTMAS fame.
There are two main storylines in the film. Stevens falls gradually in love with Emma Thompson’s younger housekeeper, the lively and spirited Miss Sarah ‘Sally’ Kenton, who is as good at her job as Stevens is. She doesn’t live for her job, however. She is quite amenable to the idea of love and all that goes with it.
Stevens, though, is so buttoned-up and used to keeping his feelings under strict control that he is unable to respond to her advances. She gives him chance after chance after chance to declare that he has feelings for her, but time out of number he fails the test. And he knows he’s failing, which is worse, but, despite the pain he’s causing to them both, he still can’t open up to her.
She eventually throws in the towel, and who could blame her, after he comes across her bawling her eyes out over him on the floor of her parlour. Unable to offer her so much as a crumb of comfort, unwilling even to help the sobbing woman to her feet, he makes some inconsequential remark about the maid’s failure to dust a certain alcove.
‘I knew you would wish to be informed about it,’ he says stiffly.
‘I’ll see to it, Mr. Stevens,’ she sniffles, heartbroken.
Mr. Stevens’s last chance for love flies up the parlour chimney and is gone forever…
The other- grimmer- storyline concerns Lord Darlington’s alleged ‘Nazi-sympathising’ and commitment to helping Germany re-arm and strengthen herself after her crushing defeat in World War One. The situation for England grows more and more serious as the war which seems inevitable to some draws nearer.
Lord Darlington’s watchwords are words like ‘fair play’ and ‘honour’ and doing right by the other fellow. He feels guilty, and almost personally responsible, for the Versailles Treaty that followed on after the First World War.
The Treaty crippled Germany and made her pay heavily, financially and otherwise, for her part in causing the war which killed so many people. She lost lands and monies and the right to re-armament.
She had to pay huge sums in reparations and her peoples were pretty bloody depressed for a long time afterwards. Lord Darlington foolishly wants to make this all up to Germany in the interests of so-called fair play.
Lord Darlington’s journalist godson, ably played by Hugh Grant, accuses Stevens of turning a blind eye to the well-meaning but misguided Lord Darlington’s turning the house into a base for Nazi operations in England. Stevens, however, would never dream of presuming to question his master’s actions. Talk about ‘ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die…’
It is only later in the film, when we see Stevens off on a motoring holiday en route to rectify past mistakes after the war, that we discover he may not have been entirely comfortable after all with what went on at Darlington Hall. At the very least, he sees it as something to keep quiet about.
There are so many highlights and key scenes in the film. Poor old Mr. Stevens Sr. falling with the heavy tray and Coronation Street’s Fred Elliott attending him as his doctor. Miss Kenton trying to wrestle Steven’s ‘dirty’ book out of his hands. Hugh Grant as Lord Darlington’s godson getting the birds and the bees talk from a mortified Stevens. ‘I always enjoy our little chats about nature,’ says Hugh Grant to a bemused butler.
The opulence of Darlington Hall during the ill-fated international conference of 1936, and the major preparations below stairs for said conference. (The film really shows us how these fantastic old country houses were run behind the scenes. The image of the swan gliding along the water serenely while underneath the surface the feet paddle furiously comes to mind.) The heart-breaking scene at the bus-stop in the bucketing rain at the end. Oh God. Just thinking about it is causing me to tear up. Say no more…
This film is a thing of understated beauty, subtlety and delicacy. It is one of Anthony Hopkins’s and, indeed, of Emma Thompson’s finest ever performances, in my ever-so-humble-opinion, and that’s saying something. Together, they pack one hell of an emotional punch.
I must warn you before you watch it, you’ll need hankies. Lots of hankies. And fancy chocolates too and maybe a nice glass of white wine. Chilled to perfection and served the way Mr. Stevens himself would do it. It’s the kind of classy film that deserves a bit of effort being put into watching it. Any trouble you take over it will most certainly be worth it.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Vampirology. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.