The Remains of the Day
UK Certificate: U
US Certificate: PG
Intended audience: Adults
The Remains of the Day contains what is, in my opinion, Anthony Hopkins’s finest performance. He inhabits the character of James Stevens, butler to Lord Darlington (Edward Fox) circa 1930s Britain, in such an utterly, utterly believable way that adjectives like brilliant are all but redundant.
Stevens is a hugely complex individual; absurdly, comically repressed with a single-minded devotion to excellence in his craft, and to his master, believing him to be a person of superior moral standing. Unfortunately, Lord Darlington is a well-meaning but deluded Nazi sympathiser, favouring appeasement with Germany to prevent the horrors of another world war.
The film opens in the 1950s, with Stevens taking a journey to the West Country to visit a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). In flashback we see how over several years they formed a close friendship that could easily have blossomed into romance. Unfortunately, loyalty to his master caused Stevens to reject her delicate advances. History took its inevitable course, and Darlington’s involvement in appeasement contributed to the outbreak of World War II. Now Stevens realises he made a mistake and wants to make amends.
This is a lovely, lovely film; historically fascinating, dramatically engaging, and a masterclass in understated emotion. Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and director James Ivory adapt Kazuo Ishiguro’s poignant novel with such delicacy that it gets under ones skin in an astonishingly profound way difficult to express in a few words. The story gently takes the audience from laughter to tears, culminating in one of the most quietly devastating finales I have ever seen.
I can only rave and rave again about Hopkins, and the equally brilliant Thompson, for their sterling performances. The supporting cast is also superb, including a pre Four Weddings and a Funeral Hugh Grant and Christopher Reeve in one of his last roles before the accident that paralysed him. Needless to say, the cinematography, music, editing and art direction are immaculate, with the understated beauty of the English countryside that was so important to the book translating brilliantly to film.
Effortlessly embracing themes of misguided loyalty, dignity, pride, wasted lives, and unrequited love, this would be too much to bear if it weren’t for the film’s good-humoured understanding of the stiff-upper-lip English culture of the time (all the more remarkable for having been initially penned by a Japanese author). In fact, humour is hugely important in the film. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, which make the tragic part of the story all the more real.
This isn’t overblown Shakespearean tragedy or Greek tragedy (ie no-one accidentally sleeps with their mother and gouges their eyes out), but the normal, mundane, everyday, quiet tragedy of wasted potential. The spiritual lesson of the film is subtle but hugely important: do not let life pass you by. Be careful who you give your allegiance to. Make the most of every opportunity, because one day it will be too late.
All in all, The Remains of the Day is a remarkable film; an unforgettable parable of a man who knows his place, keeps it, and loses himself. A man for whom idealism proves more devastating than cynicism. The fact that Anthony Hopkins failed to win at the Academy Awards (he lost out to Tom Hanks for Philadelphia that year) remains one of Oscar’s great injustices.