Remains of Old Europe
‘Remains of the Day‘ is a subtle, thought-provoking work, and perhaps Anthony Hopkins’ all-time best performance. He plays Stevens, a career butler at the service of Lord Darlington, a Nazi appeaser who uses his diplomatic influences to promote cross-cultural ties with Germany in the early 1930s. Stevens is a dutiful servant and a perfectionist to the point of being an heartless automaton. Isolating his feelings both about his master’s diplomatic mission and his own passions, his professionalism and reserve almost entirely inhibit his ability to convey his emotions.
When he warms to the spirited, but equally efficient housekeeper Miss Kenton (played by Emma Thomson), he begrudgingly recognises her as an equal and later, as a friend. However, she holds an attraction to him that he is quite unable to reciprocate owing to house rules and, more powerfully, his own sense of self-possession. Stevens’ comportment, as he fights down his feelings, perhaps knowingly against his own passions, is so subtly played by Hopkins that we do not know where the professional ends and the human begins. Has a life of butlering totally frozen his feelings, or is the struggle against his passions a conscious, willful act of self-destruction? ‘Remains of the Day‘ keeps us guessing until the end, as Stevens has one more opportunity to fulfill his affection for Miss Kenton, but will be capable of righting the wrongs of the past?
‘Remains of the Day‘ also looks at the vestiges of Britain’s landed power, the politics of the noble gentleman that was finally buried by the outbreak of the second world war. Christopher Reeve plays an American statesman disgusted by the amateurism of the old order, warning of a need to enter an era of real politics in the face of the modern threat of Nazism. The illusion of the old way of doing diplomacy in old manor houses, with gentleman’s agreements struck over cognac and cigars, was to be brutally undermined by history. Lord Darlington’s naivety and blindness to the events unfolding around him mirrors poignantly with Stevens’ refusal to aknowledge his feelings or those of others.
There are a number of establishing shots in the film that view the house though doorways and windows that seem suggestive of blinkered perspective. Butlering itself, and the meticulous presentation of the house for the guests, are acts of performance and illusion at odds with reality. ‘Remains of the Day‘, like Ishiguru’s subsequent novel ‘When we were Orphans‘, concerns itself with the ways in which the second world war destroyed quaint British philosophy of the gentleman, and its ability to solve the world’s ills through reason and reserve. Ultimately Stevens belongs to a dying era of people for whom this philosophy represents an all-encompassing framework, and who use it to imprison their spirit.
There are a number of great scenes in this film but the finest for me – and possibly the most famous – is when Miss Kenton finds Stevens reading a romantic novel in his study and literally has to corner him and prise his fingers off it to discover what it is. The corny romance of such a book is a flight of fancy to a man like Stevens, and its exposure represents a massive violation of his privacy. The intrusion revealing a human fragility and innocence beneath the professional veneer, and he seems either unaware or simply terrified by Miss Kenton’s apparant advances. His body language throughout the scene is a work of remarkable complexity and subtlety. Superb.