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May 02, 2013: “The Remains of the Day”

May 2, 2013

Stevens+Kenton[I remember liking the film “The Remains of the Day” (1991) when it first came out and revisiting it recently, I found that I liked it even better the second time around. For me, this is the Merchant/Ivory film. This viewing, I noticed that the novel the film is based on, was written by an Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro. Smelling an “East-meets-West” story, I took out Ishiguro’s book, which has been one of the best novels I have read in some time.

ROTD-kazuo-ishiguroHaving written the blog for some time now, it is amusing to see certain themes pop up, particularly when they sometimes run contrary to the overall East-meets-West theme of the blog. My interest in English butlers can be found in my article “Timbale de Riz Epinard “and the idea of tying oneself to a worthy, and moral master can be found in “Good Masters All“]

Head-butler at Darlington Hall for more than twenty years, Jack Stevens has been lately practicing his “bantering.” Not through any real interest of his own, however. It’s just that Stevens has observed his relatively new American employer seems to enjoy this “bantering” and diligent as ever, Stevens seeks ever to please. He’s just not that good at it yet. In Stevens’ mind his repartees are well thought out and meticulously crafted. But, despite his best efforts, Stevens’ “banterings” seem to go right over the American’s head.

Stevens is about to embark upon which amount to him a very rare “expedition.” He is soon to travel a couple of counties away to visit the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall from twenty years ago. Stevens has been noticing that, in small ways to be sure but very evident to himself, tiny mistakes he is making now on a daily basis. Mistakes that worry him. Ever diligent to be the best butler he can be, his only solution is to try to convince Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) who he esteems as no other in his profession, to return to Darlington Hall.

So Stevens tells himself. Stevens however, as usual, is not perceiving the full picture.

As he travels, Stevens reflects on his memories from the time of Miss Kenton’s first arrival. Miss Kenton is everything Stevens is not. Where Stevens is polite, Miss Kenton is provoking. Where he is remote, she is passionate. He-respectful, she-caring. He-the pit, she-the fruit. He is ice, she is fire. Both consummate professionals, both at the pinnacle of their respective jobs, we soon see (as viewers/readers) as well as everyone else (with the possible exception of Stevens) sees: that Stevens and Kenton are made for each other.

Perhaps it is that he is such the stickler for the rules and the big one being “no romances in Darlington Hall” that prevents Stevens from realizing just how good Miss Kenton would be for him. His performing his every action “by the book” while certainly professional, constantly removes Stevens from the more human aspects of his occupation. His goal of being a “great” butler somehow makes him…constantly, a diminished person. He continually acts as if he just fell to earth from another planet. Human motives and actions seem to just confuse him. Indeed, Stevens represents many aspects of Aspergers, highly functioning at his job, but oblivious to emotions…including his own at times.

Anthony Hopkins as StevensIt doesn’t help matters for Stevens that he has tied his cart to the wrong horse. The Lord of Darlington Hall is heading down a dangerous path. Although a good and honorable (to a fault) man, Lord Darlington, in the early 1930’s, advocates appeasement to Germany, which allows a Nazi foothold in England when she can least afford it. As Stevens is privy to every communication that takes place in Darlington Hall, this makes Stevens a kind of accomplice to the ultimate evils of this very bad path. The worst is when Darlington hires two Jewish girls as staff, reconsiders, then sends the girls back to Germany…to almost certain death. Stevens is instructed by Darlington to fire the girls, and Stevens, and once more following the book, and much to the consternation of Miss Kenton, does so. Darlington later regrets this decision, but it is far too late. He has pulled everyone at Darlington Hall into a net of guilt by this wrong act and all are punished for it.

Aside from such dark moments, both book and movie are riddled with scenes of humor, also. When his godson visits, Lord Darlington feels impelled to finally “inform” the young man of the “fact of life” prior to his upcoming wedding. Feigning a busy schedule (but most likely because he is uncomfortable…and perhaps, just because he can) he sends Stevens to do the chore!

[From the book:] …The young gentleman reached down into the attaché case at his feet and brought out a notebook and pencil. “Fire away, Stevens.”

I coughed again and set my voice into as impersonal a tone as I could manage.

“Sir David wishes you to know, sir, that ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects.”

I must have paused a little to form my next phrase, for Mr Cardinal gave a sigh and said: “I’m only too aware of that, Stevens. Would you mind coming to the point?”

“You are aware, sir?”

“Father is perpetually underestimating me. I’ve done extensive reading and background work on this whole area.”

“Is that so, sir?”

“I’ve thought about virtually nothing else for the past month.”

“Really, sir. In that case, perhaps my message is rather redundant.”

“You can assure Father I’m very well briefed indeed. This attaché case” – he nudged it with his foot – “is chock-full of notes on every possible angle one can imagine.”

“Is that so, sir?”

“I really think I’ve thought through every permutation the human mind is capable of. I wish you’d reassure Father of that.”

“I will, sir.” Mr Cardinal seemed to relax a little. He prodded once more his attaché case – which I felt inclined to keep my eyes averted from – and said:

“I suppose you’ve been wondering why I never let go of this case. Well, now you know. Imagine if the wrong person opened it.”

“That would be most awkward, sir.”…

[It was this passage that cased some concern at work. Finding me in convulsions (of laughter…but that was not immediately evident) some kind people were a little anxious of my well-being. A quick “thumbs-up” and I was able to return to my reading…and laughter. It is never exactly clear what is supposed to be in the briefcase, but Ishiguro later has young master Cardinal say that he …”knows everything about fish…” so one could surmise that the briefcase contains his valued catalogs of fish!]

Remains_ServantsTableIn his journey and with his remembrances, we come to see that Stevens has come to sacrifice everything of true value to his ideal of service: family, personal honor, self-worth, conscience, and love. At the end, Stevens is heartbroken, disillusioned, regretful, and feeling that his life has been wasted. Sitting on a bench at a pier, where just a short time ago, he spent his last moments with Miss Kenton, he is not quite alone. On an adjoining bench there is man who strikes up a conversation with Stevens. It turns out that this man has also been a butler, but in smaller household than Darlington. In one of those rare magic gifts, fate has delivered to Stevens exactly what he needs most: a complete stranger who just happens to understand all that he has been through. A little too late, Stevens begins to open up to the stranger who, in return, offers Stevens a ready ear, good advice and a slightly used hankie (Stevens is unaware that he has begun to weep.)

DarlingtonHallAfter, Stevens waits for the pier lights to come on at dusk and to marvel in the constant effect that this event has upon the crowd: they “ooo” and  “aaah” and draw together in conversation. Observing those young people closest to him, whom he assumes are close friends, Stevens is amazed to discover that they were strangers only a moment ago. In a kind of way, the physical light has engendered another kind of light. Stevens attributes this automatic bonding to the skill of their “bantering” and resolves to improve his own bantering-skills during the return trip. Sadly, once more, Stevens has missed the mark. One could well imagine him making these awkward, baby-steps towards a full person for the rest of his life. However, it is the effort that counts most of all, and there are worse goals for Stevens…and for the rest of us, in the remains of the day, than to just keep reaching towards the light.

[Ishiguro has gone on record to say that he endeavored to write a universal story of a wasted life.  I cannot imagine that his background in both Japan and his adopted England, each (to an American perspective) with its own, unique societal reservations, did not inform the story. Be that as it may, both movie and book are a joy. I suggest watching the movie first, and if you like it, move on to the book, which has (as most books do) much more detail.

Christopher ReevesThe movie, as I have said, is the finest of Merchant/Ivory. Beautifully photographed, magnificently staged and wonderfully acted. Anthony Hopkins has said that there is no chemistry in acting, but I see it in spades with he and Emma Thompson. Their obvious affection for one another in real life is reflected in their roles. The “book” scene between them I consider not only one of the best acted scene in cinema, but also one of the most erotic (despite the characters being fully clothed and hardly even touching!) A young Hugh Grant as master Cardinal is both humorous and touching. The film is worth a watch if only to see Christopher Reeve, not only alive but walking, as Senator Lewis. The 2001 version of “Remains…” has a couple of documentaries, a good commentary and deleted scenes, including the ending from the book (above) which was acted to perfection by Hopkins, but not used in the film.]

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3 comments

  1. Self-imposed and rigid rules can trip up the best of us. Sometimes you really do just have to take the plunge.


  2. Loved that movie, too. Anthony Hopkins Is perfection.

    Have you seen ” 84 Charing Cross Road” ?

    magnificent…The book was great, but the movie sublime…and I even got to go to that real address with Regan…no longer a book store, but, sigh, at least we got to be there.

    Happy May .

    take care,

    Kathy Avery


    • Kathy, I read the book “84 Charing Cross Road” last year and it has been a while since seeing the movie, but that is a good suggestion. I’ll have to try to find it at the library. Both book and movie are a great tribute to communication by writing letters, a skill, I fear, we are slowly losing as a society. So cool that you have visited the actual address!



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