Remains of the Day, The
United Kingdom, 1993
U.S. Release Date:
PG (Mature Themes)
Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, James Fox, Christopher Reeve
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
The cream always rises to the top, and such is the indisputable case with Anthony Hopkins' deeply moving portrayal of the stilted butler of Darlington Hall in the newest offering from Merchant Ivory. Reuniting Howards End co-stars Hopkins and Emma Thompson, this offering is on par with last year's best picture contender.
Most of The Remains of the Day is presented as a series of flashbacks, with a 1950s James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) recalling his days of service under the late Lord Darlington (James Fox), especially during the years leading up to the second world war. However, at the center of the tale is Stevens' never-defined relationship with the head housekeeper, Sally Kenton (Emma Thompson). They love each other, but that love remains unvoiced, for no matter how hard Miss Kenton tries to draw him out, Mr. Stevens can not admit his feelings, not even to himself.
This relationship is explored under the shadow of the Nazis' rise to power in Germany. Lord Darlington, a German sympathizer who believes that the Treaty of Versailles was cruel, is determined to fight for peace, no matter what the cost. Some of those that he invites to stay under his roof are not as enthusiastic, including U. S. Congressman Lewis (Christopher Reeve), who warns Darlington that he is an amateur playing a game best left to professionals. The warning is prophetic, but its consequences are not explored as fully as they might have been.
Nevertheless, we care far more about the interaction between Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens than we do about Lord Darlington's attempts to curtail war. We follow these two across more than twenty years, always hoping that something will crack Stevens' perfect veneer of emotional dearth. The ending of The Remains of the Day is uncompromising. Tragedy without catharsis can be a bitter pill, but director James Ivory does nothing to blunt its impact here. He wants the audience to feel the depth of Stevens' silent loss.
Anthony Hopkins has the central role, and he portrays Stevens to perfection. Having viewed this interpretation, it is unthinkable that anyone could have replaced him. This monumental acting job -- surely one of the best of the year, if not the best -- is all the more impressive because of the lack of external emotional range in the butler. Hopkins is forced to employ a great deal of subtlety to exhibit the turmoil beneath the surface. Stevens is tortured by his love, but the need to express his feelings cannot overcome his deep reserve. As long as he doesn't speak or act, he is safe, even if the price for that safety is his lone chance for joy. Bringing out the complexities of this character is the mark of a master, which Hopkins surely is.
Emma Thompson does her usual solid job with her part, but the role of Ms. Kenton lacks the substance of the actress' character in Howards End. That's not to say that Thompson has been saddled with a featherweight; nothing could be further from the truth. But this is Stevens' story, and ultimately Sally Kenton enjoys no more than a supporting role. She is there for him, willing to give her love, if he only can allow himself to accept it.
Christopher Reeve is a perfect choice to play the "typical American". No one would confuse Congressman Lewis with a real character, but it doesn't seem that James Ivory was interested in presenting more than a stereotype. Lewis is involved for two reasons, and once both aims are accomplished, there's no real reason for him to be in the story at all. He serves his purpose, and that's good enough.
The Remains of the Day is an engaging and powerful motion picture, every bit the equal of Merchant Ivory's best work, and certainly the most emotionally-wrenching tale they have brought to the screen. Tragic love stories often hit with the hardest impact, and few are better-crafted and more intelligently presented than that of Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton.