This a little piece I wrote for a class in the Fall of 2011:
In 1993, Emma Thompson and Sir Anthony Hopkins starred in the movie The Remains of the Day, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This film has been described as a tale of repression and a film that provokes deep thought into the social order in Great Britain in the years leading up to World War II and into the internal aspects of the characters. While these theories have some validity, The Remains of the Day can also be viewed as a story of various risks that were taken and failed miserably leading to one man’s decision to not take a risk that would have fundamentally changed his life.
Set in the 1950s, The Remains of the Day opens with a letter written by the former housekeeper of Darlington to James Stevens (Hopkins), the butler at Darlington. This letter reveals that the owner of the mansion, Lord Darlington has died and his estate has been purchased by a former American Congressman, Mr. Lewis. This letter causes a flashback to the 1930s when the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Thompson), worked at Darlington. At this point in time, Lord Darlington is preparing to host a series of meetings with the hopes of avoiding another war with Germany. Mr. Stevens becomes so particular about maintaining order that he neglects his familial duty to be concerned when his father’s health begins to deteriorate. Even when his father dies, all Stevens can focus on is the major conference that is taking place. Miss Kenton unsuccessfully tries to get him to be concerned about his father. In the midst of all of this, Miss Kenton begins to have romantic feelings for Stevens. Eventually, Miss Kenton announces that she is engaged to another man and plans to move away to west country with him. She breaks down emotionally when Mr. Stevens fails to give the emotional response she wanted to this news. Years later, Stevens is encouraged by the news that she is now divorced and looking to get back into service. This opens the door for her to become a part of his life again. However, Miss Kenton learns her daughter is pregnant, making a return to Darlington improbable. As Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton say farewell after having tea and catching up, there is a moment where we can see that Stevens wants desperately to tell Miss Kenton how he feels and to beg her to come back to Darlington with him, but he lets that moment go. This entire story is told amidst repression, dignity, social order, introspection, and failure.
The idea of repression comes from Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Stephen Hunter’s Baltimore Sun article “Remains of the Day is a Nearly Flawless Story of a Repressed Soul.” Hunter states that The Remains of the Day is “almost a clinical lab test on repression” (Hunter). He reflects on Stevens’ sense of duty that is so important to him that he seems to completely deny any and all emotion he feels. Stevens cannot see the absurdity taking place around him. He also cannot see that Miss Kenton, the woman he loves, loves him as well.
Film critic, John Simon, in his review of the film, “‘Remains’ to Be Seen,” looks into the social order of the characters in the film and their internal thoughts and feelings. Simon says that this film has four basic plots working within the entire movie. The first is the over-plot concerning Lord Darlington’s attempts to get an appeasement deal with Germany. The main plot of the story is the romance (or lack thereof) between Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens. The under-plot concern the lives of the servants of Darlington Hall. The fourth plot is what Simon calls a “quasi-documentary” concerning how a grand estate such as Darlington operates. According to Simon, the movie views the social system within Great Britain in the 1930s “with mingled admiration and distaste.” Simon also applauds screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for her ability to “objectify and animate what in the novel is mostly internalized, point-of-view reflection” (Simon). He goes on to point out the brilliance with which Anthony Hopkins portrays this emotionally shut off character while still showing his soft side.
Both Hunter and Simon agree on some main points. They both discuss dignity and how courtliness affects the characters especially Stevens. The critics go on to talk about how Stevens cannot express emotion. However, they disagree on the nature of Stevens’ inability to feel. Hunter states that Stevens’ lack of feelings stems from repression following the logic that Stevens’ has such blind obedience to his master that he ignores his feelings. Simon, on the other hand, asserts that the social status of Stevens causes him to choose to not have emotions. Stevens—when answering questions from one of Lord Darlington’s political friends—responds by stating his inability to provide assistance in finding an answer to the world’s problems. He makes this evasive maneuver because in his view it is not his place to discuss politics with his boss and his friends. Even in the midst of a family crisis, he chooses his job over tending to his sick father, who succumbs to his poor health and dies.
Both Hunter and Smith have valid points. One aspect they do not mention is the risks that are taken throughout the movie. Mr. Stevens takes a risk bringing in his aging father to work at a job he is probably too old to do. Lord Darlington takes a risk in his negotiations to appease Germany to bring about peace. Miss Kenton takes a risk standing up to Mr. Stevens in regards to his father’s inability to do his job. Another risk taken by Miss Kenton is when she gets engaged to someone other than the man she truly loves. After announcing to Mr. Stevens that sheplans to get married, Miss Kenton goes on to mock Mr. Stevens. She does all this to make him jealous in the hopes he will finally open up and admit that he loves her. What all these risks have in common is that they all failed miserably. Mr. Stevens throughout the entire story sees all of these risks fail. He is a very cautious individual and takes only the risk of bringing in his father as an under butler. It can be argued that he only takes this risk because of his sense of duty towards his father. It is very possible that all these failures makes him afraid to take a risk. He has a golden opportunity as the final handshake between Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens lingers. It can be seen that he wants to cry out in desperation, “Do not leave me. I love you.” Unfortunately, he lets her ride off into the rain on the bus.
The Remains of the Day has many layers. One layer is that of repression. Other layers include the social structure of Great Britain and the internal aspects of the characters. The final layer is the layer of the risks that failed in front of Mr. Stevens. After watching risks fail in front of him, he becomes afraid to take a risk to make his life better than his past. The final moment of the film shows the future of Mr. Stevens. Congressman Lewis lets go of a pigeon and watches the bird go soaring into the air showing the freedom and openness most human beings have, but after this Stevens showing his true colors closes the window and closes himself off from the world.
Hunter, Stephen. “Remains of the Day Is a Nearly Flawless Story of a Repressed Soul.” The Sun [Baltimore, MD] 05 Nov. 1993: 11. Proquest. Web. 27 Sept. 2011.
The Remains of the Day. Dir. James Ivory. Screenplay by Ruth P. Jhabvala. Perf. Anthony Hopkins and Emma THompson. Merchant Ivory Productions, 1993. DVD.
Simon, John. “‘Remains’ to Be Seen.” Rev. of The Remains of the Day. National Review 13 Dec. 1993: 61-63. Print.