“The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity’.”
— Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) has spent his life striving to become the perfect butler. After decades of faithful service to the late Lord Darlington (James Fox), he’s now — circa 1958 — in the employ of Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve), an American millionaire and former congressman who purchased Darlington Hall after the previous owner’s death. With Lewis’s encouragement and the loan of his car, Stevens is about to take his first holiday in years. “Absolutely. Certainly. Take a break. See the world,” Lewis says, then asks, “When did you last see the world, Stevens? Tell me.” Stevens hesitates. “Ah. Well, in the past, the world always used to come to this house, in a manner of speaking, if I may say so, sir.”
However, being the consummate professional that he is, Stevens won’t merely be traveling for pleasure. He’s just received a letter from Mrs. Benn (Emma Thompson), formerly Miss Kenton, Darlington Hall’s onetime housekeeper who left twenty years earlier in order to marry but has now separated from her husband. Because she seems to be at loose ends, Stevens hopes to convince her to return to her old job, thereby solving the house’s current staffing problems. After arranging a meeting with her, he sets off for England’s West Country, where she lives. This journey offers him the rare, precious opportunity to see new sights and meet new people, yet as he goes along, his mind is constantly on the past, on the period in the mid-1930s when Darlington Hall was a hub of international affairs, Miss Kenton was his capable colleague and Stevens himself was at the height of his career. It soon becomes clear, though, that his ostensible glory days weren’t so glorious, as Lord Darlington was hardly the great man Stevens thought he was serving. Moreover, Stevens’s reasons for visiting the former housekeeper may not be quite as professional as he’d like to believe.
The Remains of the Day, directed by James Ivory and released in 1993, is based on a 1988 novel of the same title by Kazuo Ishiguro. Writing for The New York Times Book Review in 1989, Lawrence Graver aptly described the novel as “a dream of a book: a beguiling comedy of manners that evolves almost magically into a profound and heart-rending study of personality, class and culture.” It unfolds gradually, as Stevens — who acts as the narrator — reflects on his present, his past and what it means to be a great butler, inadvertently revealing his deep regrets about his life. Again and again, he takes pains to justify or rationalize his mistakes, and though he addresses these remarks to the reader, it’s evident that he’s really trying to convince himself.
The film, naturally enough, dispenses with this narration. As such, it’s able to present Stevens more objectively and depict scenes he didn’t witness, but it also forfeits some of the humor in his character. Early on in the book, for instance, he spends a great deal of time fretting about his inability to banter, as he thinks that his new employer expects it of him; none of this makes it to the screen. (For the record, the new owner of Darlington Hall is named Mr. Farraday in the book. The Mr. Lewis of the film is an amalgamation of Farrady and a senator named Lewis who attends Lord Darlington’s international conference. Despite their differences, both characters are Americans and thereby offer an outsider’s view of the English traditions embodied by Stevens and Lord Darlington. On a practical level, combining them also gives Christopher Reeve a larger role.)
That said, Stevens’s views on a butler’s proper role do come through, sometimes explicitly through dialogue but often more subtly. As far as he’s concerned, a butler can only achieve true greatness by serving a great man, and in order to do so, he must maintain “dignity in keeping with his profession” — which amounts to obliterating his own identity except in those rare moments when he’s all alone. His job is to support his master, and to express any disagreement with Lord Darlington’s orders and opinions, much less take a stand against him, is unthinkable. This attitude sometimes puts him in comedic situations, like when he agrees to explain the facts of life to Lord Darlington’s decidedly grown-up godson, but on the whole, the consequences are far more serious.
Lord Darlington is a complex character, and it’s not difficult to understand why Stevens initially admires him and believes that he’s doing important, noble work in the world. Because a German friend committed suicide due to the economic hardships he faced after World War I, Lord Darlington has devoted himself — mainly from a classic English gentleman’s sense of honor toward a defeated foe — to helping the German people at large. Unfortunately, these fine impulses eventually lead him to become a Nazi sympathizer, playing a key role in Britain’s disastrous appeasement policy. (Another alteration: The flashbacks in the book take place between 1922 and 1936, while the film compresses them into a three or four year period ending in 1938.) He is, it seems, an easily manipulated and misguided man more than a thoroughly bad one. His only major act of anti-Semitism — instructing Stevens to fire two Jewish maids — comes about when he falls under the influence of a fascist organization. He soon regrets his decision and wishes to make amends, but by that point it’s too late to track the maids down. The film further complicates the matter by making the two young women refugees from Germany; in the book, there’s nothing to indicate that they’re not English.
When Miss Kenton learns about Lord Darlington’s decision, she’s horrified, all the more so when she finds that Stevens intends to carry it out. “His lordship has made his decision,” he says. “There is nothing for you and I to discuss.” She argues that to dismiss the maids would be “a sin, as any sin ever was one” and threatens to quit, but to no avail. Later on, after Lord Darlington expresses his regret over the situation, Stevens at last feels free to reveal his own opinion to Miss Kenton:
Stevens: He said it was wrong to dismiss them. I thought you should like to know, because I remember you were as distressed as I was about it.
Miss Kenton: As you were? As I recall, you thought it was only right and proper that they should be sent packing.
Stevens: Now really, Miss Kenton, that is most unfair. Of course I was upset. Very much so. I don’t like to see that sort of thing happening in this house.
Miss Kenton: Well, I wish you’d told me so at the time. It would have helped me a great deal if I’d known you felt the same way as I did. Why, why, Mr. Stevens, why do you always have to hide what you feel?
And yet, for all of Miss Kenton’s high principles, she finds herself crippled by fear, much as Stevens is crippled by his sense of duty. Unlike her eventual husband, Mr. Benn (Tim Pigott-Smith), who leaves his fascist master over his politics and gets out of service altogether, she stays on at Darlington Hall after the firing of the Jewish maids: “I’m not leaving. I’ve nowhere to go. I have no family. I’m a coward. Yes, I am a coward. I’m frightened of leaving, and that’s the truth. All I see out in the world is loneliness, and it frightens me. That’s all my high principles are worth, Mr. Stevens. I’m ashamed of myself.” Stevens responds by assuring her of her importance “to this house”; she seems to be waiting for him to say “to me,” but he immediately returns to the business of running Darlington Hall.
Contentious though their relationship tends to be, the mutual attraction between Stevens and Miss Kenton becomes increasingly obvious as the film goes on, yet neither one is willing or able to acknowledge it. The usually outspoken Miss Kenton’s reticence makes sense, considering that Stevens had complained about “those persons who are simply going from post to post looking for romance” during her job interview, the first day they ever met. In his mind, meanwhile, falling in love with a co-worker would mean failing in his duty as a professional, allowing the personal to take precedence. This is a man who continues working while his father is on his deathbed, who avoids hiring pretty girls and even dislikes having flowers in his pantry because he so fears distraction. In keeping with his ideas about dignity, he can only let his guard down in total privacy, so when Miss Kenton walks into his pantry without warning one day, he desperately tries to hide the book he’s reading. She teases him that it’s probably something racy, but when she finally pries it out of his fingers, she’s surprised. “Oh dear,” she says. “It’s not scandalous at all. It’s just a sentimental old love story.” Of course, Stevens has an explanation at the ready: “I read these books — any books — to develop my command and knowledge of the English language. I read to further my education, Miss Kenton.” The two are never physically closer than in this scene, but unless he finds the courage to be a man and not a butler, their relationship can never be anything other than professional; how appropriate, then, that he’s more often seen looking at her through windows.
Interviewed for a documentary called The Remains of the Day: The Filmmakers’ Journey, Ishiguro said, “I intended the story to be one that could take off quite easily into the metaphorical sphere, so that people could actually apply it to their own lives, wherever they lived, whenever they lived. I wanted it to be a universal, human story.” Stevens’s world may be far removed from that of most viewers or readers, but the lessons he learns during his journey can be useful to anyone — provided that they aren’t learned too late.
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