Friday, March 18, 2016
REMAINS OF THE DAY, THE
(November 1993, U.S.)
I wonder how many of today's generation of moviegoers know that Anthony Hopkins made a lot of movies before THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)? It's almost uncanny how the star of films like MAGIC (1978), THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and THE BOUNTY (1984) had to play a psychotic flesh-eating cannibal before he was infamously put on the Hollywood map (such is show business, I guess!). Yet, at the same time, there's something poetically charming about watching Hopkins play a truly gentle soul on screen in the Merchant/Ivory film of Kazuo Ishiguro's THE REMAINS OF THE DAY only two years after that iconic role.
As the character of Mr. James Stevens, the head butler at Darlington Hall in Great Britain of the 1930s, Hopkins is the almost perfect epitome of the true and proper English gentleman; a man who takes great pride in being of the utmost service to his wealthy employer Lord Darlington (played by James Fox). For Stevens, life is about routine, order and perfection. This is not merely his job, but his perception of the world around him, even if it's only limited to the surroundings of the house he serves and the staff he maintains. When he employs the new head housekeeper, Mrs. Kenton (played by Emma Thompson), she immediately challenges him and his apparent inability to express his feelings in any way. While her frankness and forwardness is, on the surface, irritating and unacceptable to him, it's very clear to those of us watching that she is, in her own fashion, a breath of fresh air to him and his life of routine and order, though he will never dare show it.
As a true Englishman, Mr. Stevens cannot fathom the concept of breaking away from his role as head butler for his Lord for even a moment. Upon hearing that his father (also a butler at the Hall) has passed away after suffering a stroke, his reaction is almost stoic. It's not that he didn't love his father, but the man's death just happen to occur at the worst time possible, when Stevens was in the process of performing his duties for his Lord and his most important political guests. To break that sort of professional concentration or to even appear as if he were listening to their conversations and had an opinion of his own would be considered rude, unprofessional and unacceptable to the etiquette of the proper English butler. Mrs. Kenton, as professional and effective at her job as she is, fails to understand Stevens' persona and inability to express feeling. And although she makes her frustrations clear to him, it's a futile effort.
It's important now to focus for a moment on the period of history that's taking place here at Darlington Hall. It's the time prior to Hitler's invasion of Europe and Lord Darlington is (also) a proper English gentlemen with an unfortunate and naive faith in attempting to form an alliance of peace with German heads of state. While he doesn't appear to truly believe in Germany's position against Jews, he doesn't want to be seen as uncooperative or politically incorrect, so he would sooner unfairly dismiss two young maids because their Jewish rather than ask for trouble. Mr. Stevens and Mrs. Kenton are witnesses to this act, and while Mrs. Kenton clearly express her outrage at this act, Mr. Stevens insists on keeping the faith in his Lord, who he still believes to be a fine and honorable man. While all of Darlington Hall's political guests appear to (falsely) believe that Germany is an ally to the world, only an American congressman (played by Christopher Reeve) believes that putting trust in the Germans is a horrible and regrettable mistake. Well, he was right!
One of the challenging (if not confusing) aspects of THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is trying to figure out if throughout all of their years together, Mr. Stevens and Mrs. Kenton are falling in love. If they are, both of them are refusing to express it openly. By the end of her employment at Darlington Hall, Mrs. Kenton seemingly tries to provoke Mr. Stevens by announcing that she plans to marry another man (whom we, as the viewer, presume she doesn't love) to see what sort of reaction she'll get from him. While his face suggests sorrow and regret over losing her, all he can offer her is his "warmest congratulations". However, there's one particular moment in the film that would suggest otherwise, but it's only a moment. Still, let me describe it for you. During a scene when Mrs. Kenton tries to discover the nature of the book Mr. Stevens is reading, she comes very close to him to take the book out of his hand. The moment she does this, Mr. Stevens nervously raises his hand to his forehead and his face appears to express a tenderness that we had not seen before. Take a look..
It's a simple gesture, but I believe the act of putting his hand to his forehead the way he does, even briefly, is a powerful visual moment that immediately (and only temporarily) tears down the emotional wall he has kept around himself. In that moment, we can see how much he loves her and how weakened this proper English gentleman has become when she gets too close to him. Tragically, he will never tell her this and his potential for true happiness shall go unrealized. Still, we're watching and we know how things really are. It's almost frustrating that we can't do anything about it because it's only a movie...and in the movies, endings aren't always happy ones. Mr. Stevens and Mrs. Kenton will never come together (watch the slow motion shot when their hands part for the last time, indicating that they'll never see each other again) and perhaps even worse is that Mr. Stevens will not learn anything from his experiences with her. Life shall continue as it always was for him; orderly, structured and oh-so properly English.
I've seen my small share of British film that date back as early as Hitchcock's early work of the 1930s. In the 1990s, I discovered the works of Merchant/Ivory in an attempt to broaden my cinematic tastes. Some I liked, some I didn't. As a truly British film, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is one of the best I've ever seen, in its style, it's purity, its simplicity, its subtlety and it's thoughtfulness. The performances are first rate (Hugh Grant the small exception, his character being of a silly nature in a film I don't believe is ever meant to be funny), particularly by Mr. Hopkins in what I consider to be the best role of his extensive career (sorry Hannibal!). I also have to note that Christopher Reeve finally breaks away from Superman and gives an extraordinary performance of his own, two years before he would become paralyzed. He made a few more films before and after his accident but I honestly wish he hadn't. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY would have been a perfect swan song to his career and his life.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Congressman Trent Lewis: "You are, all of you, amateurs. And international affairs should never be run by gentlemen amateurs. Do you have any idea of what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could just act out of your noble instincts, are over. Europe has become the arena of realpolitik, the politics of reality. If you like, real politics. What you need is not gentlemen politicians, but real ones. You need professionals to run your affairs, or you're headed for disaster!"
That line spoken by the late Christopher Reeve is dedicated to all those Americans out there who would actually be stupid enough (and insane enough!) to vote a clown like Donald Trump into the White House!