The 1993 Best Picture nominee The Remains of the Day is a love story. Actually, it’s a series of love stories. Every character in the film is in love with something or someone. It’s just that, with one exception, they’re all so extremely British that it’s sometimes hard to tell.
The one exception is an American congressman named Trent Lewis (Christopher Reeve). As the film opens in the 1950s, he’s just purchased Darlington Hall, which is one of those country manors that hold so much history and romance for those of us who regularly watch Downton Abbey. Lewis is excited to have a British manor of his very own. It even comes with its very own butler, a Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins).
As we see in flashback, Stevens previously worked at Darlington Hall when it was owned by Lord Darlington (James Fox). In the 1930s, Lord Darlington may have loved Britain but he was also dangerously naive about the rise of Nazi Germany. Actually, to say that he was naive might be letting Lord Darlington off too easily. When we first meet Lord Darlington, he seems like a well-meaning but hopelessly out-of-touch aristocrat. He has so little understanding of the real world that he even asks Stevens to have the sex talk with his godson (played, somewhat inevitably, by Hugh Grant), who happens to be close to 30 years old at the time and, one would presume, far beyond the age when the talk is really necessary. When we first see Lord Darlington, who is hosting a conference on how to best deal with the rise of the Nazis, arguing that Britain should ignore the rise of Hitler, it’s easy to assume that he’s just as clueless about Germany as he is about his godson. But then, eventually, Lord Darlington orders Stevens to fire two Jewish maids and you’re forced to reconsider everything that you previously believed about him.
And then there’s Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson), who worked as a housekeeper for Lord Darlington. She loves the repressed Mr. Stevens but continually finds herself frustrated by Stevens’s professional detachment. Unlike Stevens, Ms. Kenton doesn’t hold back on her opinions but, when she finally has a chance to stand up for her beliefs and defy the status quo at Darlington Hall, she backs down.
And then there’s Mr. Stevens. Mr. Stevens may be one of the most emotionally repressed characters in the history of the movies but the entire film revolves around trying to figure out what or who Stevens loves. It’s a little too easy to assume that he’s in love with Ms. Kenton, even though that will be the natural instinct of most viewers. While he obviously feels affection towards her, he can never bring himself to truly express it. (That said, getting a letter from her appears to be the only thing that can actually inspire him to leave the safety of Darlington Hall and venture into the outside world.) While it seems, at times, that he might love Lord Darlington, Stevens himself prefers to say that he respected Lord Darlington and, after the war, Stevens seems to have no trouble staying on at Darlington Hall even after its bought by Congressman Lewis. Much like the ghosts in The Shining, Stevens has always been the butler and always will be.
Ultimately, Mr. Stevens loves his job. He loves being a butler. He’s a man so dedicated to his job that he even continues to work even while his father is dying in the next room. He loves making sure that everything’s perfect at Darlington Hall and he never bothers with worrying about how imperfect the world outside Darlington Hall may be. In that way, Stevens is a stand-in for all of the European leaders who willfully chose to ignore what was happening in Germany in the days leading up to World War II. And, much like those European leaders, he finds himself forced to work for an American in the aftermath.
As a film, The Remains of the Day can be frustrating but in a good way. Mr. Stevens is such a repressed and detached character that, much like Ms. Kenton, we’re always tempted to give up on him. Fortunately, Anthony Hopkins is one of those actors who can suggest so much with just a pause in his dialogue or a quick glance to the side. You look at his sad eyes and suddenly, you know everything that Mr. Stevens cannot bring himself to say. Emma Thompson has a somewhat easier role because Ms. Kenton at least gets to say what she’s thinking but she still bring a lot of depth to the role and has a lot of chemistry with Hopkins. And finally, you’ve got James Fox who is so comically befuddled that it’s all the more shocking to consider all of the pain that he — intentionally or not — is partially responsible for.
The Remains of the Day is a great film for all of us Downton Abbey-loving history nerds.