Two of life’s chief comforts for the price of one: a classic film, and a masterful reworking of a classic novel. James Ivory’s 1993 film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day reminds us that the scale of history is in fact contained in heartbreaking miniatures – individual lives and loves that unfold against the backdrop of wars and political intrigue.
The backdrop here is mid-century England, both at the height of its coat-tailed class order and the crumbling of this worldview post-second world war. The chief holder of the heartbreak is the central character and narrator, Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), an unflappably professional butler. His counterpart and lost love is the housekeeper Miss Kenton, brought to life with gusto, yet an appropriate amount of English restraint by Emma Thompson. This film came hot off the heels of their wildly successful collaboration in 1992 Howard’s End, also brought to us by the same team of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant.
The Remains of the Day begins after the war has ended. “The cook cooks the cooked breakfast while her assistant toasts the toast,” says Stevens to his new American employer, Mr Farraday (Christopher Reeve), apologising for the burnt toast and concealing it inside his suit jacket. “Why don’t we just get her a pop-up toaster?” Farraday retorts.
Oh no no, for there are ways that things are simply meant to work around here. Stevens is the commander of a fleet of staff who keep the crockery shining and the floorboards polished, faithfully serving the lord of the house. But we start to sense that old and new are misaligned, rendering in slight pathos Stevens’ blind loyalty to tradition, to a dying vision of pre-war England – the glory days, when he served Lord Darlington and his many prominent, influential, and often deeply conservative and sometimes fascist guests. The gloss of those days is tainted heavily by the way that history has unfolded. During one tense dinner before the war, Stevens hovers outside the door a moment longer than he usually would, but his ambivalence is fleeting in the face of duty, and he proceeds to calmly deflect caustic comments made by Lord Darlington’s godson (played by a bespectacled young Hugh Grant).
The tale is narrated through Stevens’ diary entries, a technique that increases the viewer’s frustration with him as a character, for he will not let his guard down even in his personal life. Jhabvala deftly translates to screen Stevens’ unwitting, self-preserving perspective that every now and then hints at the florid emotions which run beneath this buffed surface, such as when Miss Kenton catches him in his downtime reading a book he obstinately refuses to show her. It is merely a romantic novel, nothing scandalous, but the air frays with possibilities as the two stand, looking into each other’s eyes, almost interlocked in a shadowy corner of his study. Stevens takes a moment – and then makes it clear that he is reading this book “to develop my command and knowledge of the English language”. The possibilities dissipate.
The love story between Stevens and Miss Kenton is stifled by Stevens’ unconditional love for country and his job. Thompson brings a warmth, playfulness and forthrightness to Miss Kenton that shows her character yearning for more, while Stevens maintains an exasperatingly pleasant and measured demeanour – a performance elucidated by Hopkins’ piercing eyes, placid tone and precise manoeuvres. All the while, the camera peeps through keyholes, doorways and windows.
It is only a thoroughly English film that could frustrate yet charm viewers at the same time in a tale of endless manners and disguised longing. At the heart of The Remains of the Day is a tragicomic story of a stoic life of unlived possibilities and a simple reminder: don’t hold out.