Ruined lives in ‘The Remains of the Day’

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Ruined lives in ‘The Remains of the Day’

Anthony Hopkins as butler James Stevens in 'The Remains of the Day' the 1993 drama film adapted from the Booker Prize-winning 1988 novel of the sam...

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s superb screenplay of The Remains of the Day (1993), based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel (1988), and directed by James Ivory, captured the complexity of the central characters and the crucial moment in history in which they lived.  Jhabvala retained some dialogue and scenes written by her predecessor Harold Pinter, who had bought the rights to the novel.  He sold them to Mike Nichols, then wrote the screenplay that Nichols planned to direct.  But Nichols sold the rights to Columbia Pictures, and they brought in Ivory, Jhabvala and the producer Ismail Merchant. The film starred Anthony Hopkins as the butler James Stevens, Emma Thompson as the housekeeper Miss Kenton and James Fox as Lord Darlington.

Ivory recalled that Hopkins dearly liked one scene at the end of Pinter’s script that Ivory wisely cut as too obvious and sentimental: “He sits on the pier where he meets another retired butler.  He breaks down and weeps with the recognition that his whole life has been in vain, that he has placed his trust and affection in the wrong person.”

Jhabvala realised that the mode of the novel is restraint, and used sparse dialogue to allow the actors to suggest the depth of their feelings.  She also developed some minor characters and made the housekeeper’s role more significant.  In the book Miss Kenton’s husband is merely mentioned; in the film there are whole scenes between her and a guest’s manservant, Tom Benn.  Ishiguro has a Mr. Farraday buy Darlington Hall after the war; Jhabvala improves this by having the American Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve), who had given a crucial speech during the prewar banquet, return as master of the stately home.  This suggests the increasing American influence on England.  Ishiguro was impressed by how much of the novel Jhabvala got into the film.

Ishiguro said in an interview that his evocative title was suggested by the word Tagesreste (day’s residues) that Freud had used in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) to refer to thoughts and images during sleep.  The title has many layers of meaning in the film: the vanishing social order, the memories of pre-war calm and relative youth, lost opportunities in life and love.  The action of the film, which takes place in the late 1930s, is framed by the beginning and end of Stevens’ momentous automobile journey 20 years later.  He drives west, toward the fading day and last of the light, which evoke the book’s poetic title.

The title also suggests what will remain: war at the end of the 1930s: the deaths of Darlington’s great German friend and of his godson Reginald Cardinal (Hugh Grant) during the war; the disgrace, ruin and death of Darlington, who left no direct heir; Miss Kenton’s unhappy marriage; and the sad end of Stevens’ empty life after the war.  In “Ulysses” Tennyson wrote: “The long day wanes. ..’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” But for Stevens, it is too late.

The name of the ultra-conservative Darlington Hall ironically echoes Dartington Hall, the liberal innovative school founded in Devon in 1926.  Lord Darlington is a sentimental idealist devoted to a creed outworn, and his traditional adherence to chivalric values—treating the defeated German enemy decently—proves to be disastrous.  He sleeps in a rough camp bed left over from the Great War; and there’s a hint of repressed homosexuality in the celibate lord, who continues to mourn the loss of his German friend, and can’t bring himself to explain sexual relations to his about-to-be married godson.  He deputes Stevens to carry out this awkward task, and in a comic scene the butler cannot explain the facts of life any better than Darlington.  Reginald Cardinal misunderstands what Stevens is clumsily trying to say and, as a journalist and man of the world, is already quite well informed about this crucial subject.

At the magnificent farewell banquet that follows Darlington’s political conference, perfectly organized by Stevens, an attractive German woman seductively sings “Sei mir gegrüsst” (I greet you) by the Austrian Franz Schubert to extol German culture.  But Darlington humiliates Stevens by allowing his friends and guests, including Nazis and some of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, to grill him on complex political and economic questions.  Stevens, whose sense of decorum is violated and who cannot possibly solve these abstruse problems, apologetically repeats, “I am sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance in this matter.”  The guests arrogantly conclude that ordinary people like the butler do not have the ability to make important decisions. The American Jack Lewis then disrupts the celebration and clashes with these fascist views by warning that Darlington himself has no business meddling in affairs he does not understand: “You are, all of you, amateurs.  And international affairs should never be run by gentlemen amateurs. . . . The days when you could just act out of your noble instincts, are over.”

In notable cinematic roles Erich von Stroheim had played the butler of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Dirk Bogarde the butler of James Fox (in a similar role) in The Servant (1963), written by Pinter.  A retired butler gave Hopkins expert advice on how to carry out his duties.  Stevens explains what he pretentiously calls his “philosophy” to another servant, Tom Benn: “A man cannot call himself well-contented until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer.  Of course, this assumes that one’s employer is a superior person, not only in rank, or wealth, but in moral stature.”  He believes that by contributing to an agreeable setting, he also contributes in his own way to contemporary history.  The butler, like the aristocrat, is anti-democratic.

Both Darlington and Stevens, the main focus of the film, are devoted to an illusion.  Stevens completely identifies with Darlington and becomes his alter-ego.  He reads books from his lordship’s library, drinks his vintage wine, inherits his well-fitting suits and drives his old Daimler.  His precise and formal speech is like a foreign language he has learned from Darlington.  He anticipates his master’s needs, follows his orders and impersonates his social standing on his drive to the West of England.  But Stevens does not take moral responsibility for his lordship’s actions or his own behaviour.

Buried alive beneath his glacial reserve, Stevens fears love and expresses Henry James’ great theme of the unlived life.  Darlington is a bachelor, there are no children in his stately home and the two young German-Jewish maids are surrogates.  Jhabvala herself, born into a German-Jewish family in Cologne, powerfully identified with the potentially fatal position of the maids and might well have been equally vulnerable if she had not escaped with her parents from Nazi Germany.  Stevens first senses that something is morally wrong when he’s forced to obey Darlington and dismiss the Jewish maids who might offend his Nazi guests.  Since the maids could easily be hidden in the vast house while the guests are visiting, Darlington is actually revealing his own latent anti-Semitism.  Stevens, actively participating in his master’s cruel prejudice, knows that without employment in England, the maids will be sent back to their deaths in Germany.

Kenton threatens to resign if Stevens, madly infatuated with Darlington, fires the gentle and fearful, harmless and hardworking maids.  In a poignant, self-lacerating scene, she withdraws her threat and shamefully admits: “I am a coward.  I’m frightened of leaving and that’s the truth.  All I see out in the world is loneliness and it frightens me.  That’s all my high principles are worth, Mr. Stevens.  I’m ashamed of myself.”  Later on, Stevens falsely claims he opposed firing the maids, while Darlington apologises for his mistake and tries in vain to trace them.

In another great scene Kenton invades Stevens’ private quarters, physically forces him into a corner of the room and tries to snatch from his closed fist a book she thinks is “racy”. But she misreads his character.  Neither he nor Darlington would possess a racy book, and he explains that he’s been reading it “to develop my command and knowledge of the English language”.

On another occasion she presses him by asking, “Why, Mr. Stevens, why do you always have to hide what you feel?”—feel for her.  But he refuses to respond to her taunts and fends her off with: “You know what I am doing, Miss Kenton?  I am placing my thoughts elsewhere while you chatter away.”  Kenton, both spinsterish and emotional and with no other prospects, is attracted to Stevens, wants to pierce his emotional carapace and allow her to express her own feelings for him.

After the war and with Congressman Jack Lewis now master of Darlington Hall, Stevens drives west hoping to lure Kenton back to her old role as valuable housekeeper.  En route, the publican who rents him a room for the night shows him the photo and old uniform of his son, killed in the war and another indirect victim of Darlington’s pro-Nazi appeasement.  Stevens convinces the workingmen in the local pub that he’s a gentleman, well-acquainted with high government officials.  But the educated doctor who meets him, tipped off by Stevens’ artificial diction and evasive answers, realizes he would not have run out of petrol if he owned the Daimler and gets him to confess that he’d actually been Darlington’s butler.

Stevens’ old father (the masterful Peter Vaughan) had trained him to be a butler and Stevens hires him to work at Darlington Hall.  In a fine set piece, father tells the staff at dinner the story of a perfect butler in India, who declares: “I’m very sorry, my lord.  There appears to be a tiger in the dining room.  Perhaps his lordship will permit use of the twelve bores?”  After three gunshots he reappears and announces: “Dinner will be served at the usual time, my lord.  And I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces of the recent occurrence at that time!”

Stevens strives to protect the dignity of his father, who nevertheless suffers two humiliating crises.  James Ivory recalled the first mishap:

The elderly butler is serving the guests at a dinner party.  A little bubble of snot dribbles out of his nose and into the wine just as he is about to pour it for his lordship.  It  captures brilliantly both the butler’s mortification and the unstated tension between servant and master.  “That was in the book,” Ivory remembers.  “I thought how in the world are we going to show a runny nose so that you can really see it?  You have to have the camera right up under the tip of the nose.  We worked and worked and worked and worked to get just that right drop.”

The father is ignominiously relieved of serving at tables and reduced to cleaning duties with what he calls “me mops and me brooms”.  Despite Stevens’ carefully constructed façade, his father’s accent reveals his own working-class origins.

Father also trips on the uneven stones in the outdoor patio, drops his heavily laden tea tray and crashes it onto the ground.  This disastrous fall marks a sharp decline in his health and also symbolises the collapse of the English old order before the outbreak of World War Two.  When his father is dying in his austere attic room, Stevens, unwilling to be distracted from his duties, remains at his post to supervise the farewell banquet.

Jhabvala coalesces the emotional and political themes at the end of the film.  When first interviewed for her position, Kenton agreed with Stevens about the servants’ romantic involvements: “I know from my own experience how the staff is at sixes and sevens when they start marrying each other.”  She urges the young maid Lizzie not to throw away her promising career by marrying the footman Charlie.  But Kenton ignores her own advice, conveniently marries Tom Benn and leaves her job at Darlington Hall.  Lizzie told her that she and Charlie “have no money but we have love,” which is exactly what Stevens and Kenton (whose marriage fails) don’t have.  Kenton finally rejects Stevens’ offer of employment, decides to remain near her pregnant daughter and may even return to her estranged husband.  As Tennyson wrote in In Memoriam “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”

Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington describes the essential theme of the film: it is “the story of an immaculate English butler who faces up to his repressed passion for a former housekeeper and his denial of his moral obligations in deferring to his aristocratic master’s Fascist sympathies.”  But Stevens never quite acknowledges his repression nor fully recognizes the malign effects of Darlington’s fascism.  At the end of his life he realizes that he had served and been devoted to a master who, though higher than himself in rank and wealth, was deeply flawed.  With the best of intentions, Darlington unwittingly contributed to evil by becoming a Nazi pawn and traitor.

Trained to keep up appearances, maintain dignity and propriety, and correctly perform minutely detailed duties, Stevens also strives to support the old order.  He practises various forms of renunciation: of friendship and love, the expression of feeling and individual ideas, moral and political responsibility.  His speech, though apparently lucid, is drained of emotion and lacking in spontaneity, designed for evasion and disguise.  He gains through Kenton and the perceptive doctor occasional insights into his own lack of perception and grasps glimmers of truth.  But after a lifetime of self-deception he can only survive by continuing to deceive himself.

The reviews of the film in the US were enthusiastic.  Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times (November 5, 1993) called it “a subtle, thoughtful movie . . . with emotional upheavals.”  Vincent Canby in the New York Times (November 5, 1993) wrote: “It’s a spellbinding new tragi-comedy of a high and most entertaining order.”  Nothing Jhabvala and Ivory have done before “has the psychological and political scope and the spare authority of this enchantingly realized film”.  Jhabvala’s sympathetic understanding and Ivory’s perfect adaptation of Ishiguro’s novel produced one of the greatest British films of the last century.


Jeffrey Meyers will publish both James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist and Parallel Lives: From Freud and Hitler to Arbus and Plath with Louisiana State University Press in 2024.



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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 86%
  • Interesting points: 94%
  • Agree with arguments: 88%
23 ratings - view all

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