Think about the role of a good butler for a moment. They are nearly silent, emotionless, promptly serving and constantly moving about but trying not to draw any attention. You would hardly notice a good butler. Mr. Stevens takes that a step further and focuses on his work so much, that he hardly notices what is going on around him.
In the early 1930’s Mr. James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is the head butler of an English mansion owned by Lord Darlington (James Fox). At the beginning of the film, Stevens is looking for good servants to work with him, he writes to seeks out his old friend and colleague Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). He also hires his own father and makes sure Kenton distinguishes him as Mr. Steven’s Sr. (Peter Vaughan). As the house prepares to hold an important international conference, Mr. Stevens must deal with his father’s deteriorating health by giving him less important duties. When the conference has Lord Darlington sympathizing with the Nazi party, Kenton realizes the moral implications that her job could have and wishes for something more than a servant’s life. Stevens, on the other hand, only blindly serves his employer, never really listening to the historical and political conversations around him, never cultivating his own ideas and never seeking anything further in life than to serve.
Would you believe that this is a love story? Though I’m not much for romance, I was rather moved at how these emotions can come about in such a restrained manner. The lazy viewer more used to flashy, overtly romantic films may not notice a bit of it. It’s never spoken in plain words nor expressed in any embrace. However, the mutual respect and tension between Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens is impossible to dismiss.
The most intimate scene between Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens is when she happens to walk in on him reading one evening. She asks what he is reading and he becomes defensive trying to hide the book, “This is my private time, you’re invading it.” This peaks her curiosity, perhaps he’s reading something racy or romantic, she follows him until he is cornered by the window. She’s pursued him in so many previous scenes only to have him flee in quiet terror of intimacy. They are finally within inches of each other, the light is dim but perfectly shows their faces. Stevens can’t keep his eyes off Keaton, his words politely say leave, but his eyes beg her to stay. But in the end, Kenton’s dreams that he may be reading something interesting for pleasure are crushed when he simply says, “I read to further my education.” This scene clearly represents why both Hopkins and Thompson were nominated for lead acting awards.
That is the main conflict in their relationship. Kenton is able to dream, cultivate ideas and think for herself, while Stevens has only the ambition to serve. She can never quite accept that about him and he doesn’t realize what his friendship with Kenton has meant until it is too late, but even then he doesn’t know how to change. At that point in life, it may be too frightening.
Of all the quietly thoughtful films having to do with stuffy British etiquette, The Remains of the Day is the best I’ve seen yet. Hopkins and Thompson put on amazing performances, the whole film has elegant beauty and the story is both historically and emotionally investing. If you find yourself a little reluctant to this sort of restrained emotional film, I would suggest trying The Remains of the Day. You may be surprised.
“Do you know what I am doing, Miss Kenton? I am placing my mind elsewhere while you chatter away.”