Creative Destruction

December 28, 2006

Film Review: The Remains of the Day

Filed under: Art — Daran @ 3:30 pm

Warning: Spoilers.

I don’t have television, so I don’t get to see films except when visiting others, or on the rare occasion I visit the cinema. This Christmas I went home to my parents, and was able to watch some of the films that were part of the seasonal offering.

“The Remains of the Day”, (IMDB, Wikipedia), a 1993 film based upon the 1989 Booker Prize winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, depicts the life of an emotionally repressed Butler, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), who worked for an English Lord in the run-up to the Second World War. The story is told in flashback, in parallel with a journey he took 20 years later to visit the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), in the hope of persuading her to return to service in the house.

It is in this later timeframe that the film opens, with an aerial view of Darlington Hall, a large stately home set in rolling English Countryside. Miss Kenton, in voiceover, reads out a letter to Mr. Stevens, in which she gives her reaction to the news of the sale of the house to Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve), a retired Congressman, after the death of Lord Darlington (James Fox). These two individuals represent old and new world orders respectively. Kenton also talks about herself. Her marriage has failed and she is nostalgic for the good old days when she worked at the house.

Inside, Mr. Lewis has taken up residence, but things are only just being put back into order in preparation for the arrival of Mrs. Lewis (who is never shown). Stevens reminds his new master about a leave of absence he had previously requested. Lewis readily agrees, and even offers Stevens the use of a car. As Stevens walks through the house, he sees various members of staff going about their business. But each fades away like a ghost, revealing that they are but memories of former times, and the house is now largely empty. Stevens takes the car, and begins his journey to visit Miss Kenton.

The film flashes back to when Kenton first joins the staff as housekeeper. Their lives are depicted in a series of vignettes, each of which reveals a little about the characters’ personalities and the developing relationship between them, which takes place against the backdrop of the meetings between the Great and the Good, and the mighty Affairs of State decided under the eves of Darlington Hall in the run up to the War. Stevens’ defining characteristics are his emotional repression, his perfectionist devotion to his work, and his loyalty to his master. Despite the day-to-day domestic crises he must manage so as render them invisible to his Lordship and esteemed guests, he is always calm, always efficient, always busy, but never hurried, never rude. The only emotions he displays are his understated irritation at Miss Kenton over the early conflicts between them, and later, when relations between them had warmed, he smiles equally understatedly at her playful suggestion that he finds one of the serving girls attractive, though it is ambiguous whether it was a smile of embarrassment because the suggestion was true, or, as he claims, one of amusement at her “nonsense”. He shows no emotion when humiliated by one of Darlington’s guests, and when his father dies, he carries on serving, remarking only that it’s “what he would have wanted”. Even when Miss Kenton is sobbing in response to his emotional coldness, the only response he is able to muster is to refer to some domestic task or other which needs her attention.

Kenton is equally efficient at her work, but altogether warmer and less repressed, as strong-willed as Stevens, but more independent-minded. She is initially upset at his insistence that she not refer to his elderly father by his Christian name, even though this is the correct protocol for her because to his lower position of the staff. Later she confronts Stevens who is in denial about his father’s increasing forgetfulness. She prevails in a disagreement with him over a prospective employee, and when, at Lord Darlington’s command, two German-Jewish servant girls are to be dismissed, she is outraged, pointing out that the likely consequence is that they would be sent back to Germany, and threatens to resign in protest, (a threat she later admits to being too cowardly to carry out). She does not accept Stevens’ response that his Lordship knows best. As their relationship warms, it becomes clear that she has fallen in love with him, and maybe he with her, though this is ambiguous, as his reserve will not permit him to show it. Nor does the rigid protocol between them properly permit her to express her love toward him. Despite all, she mounts a determined but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to get under his skin. Finally she strikes up a relationship with another man, whom she eventually decides to marry and she leaves the house on the eve of the Second World War.

Lord Darlington is a Nazi sympathiser, who uses his influence to broker the political arrangements we now call “appeasement”. But it is not clear to what extent he supports the Nazi’s true agenda, or how much he is deceived by them. He irritates the then Congressman Lewis, one of the dignitaries at a conference, and who argues in favour of the Realpolitik of professionals, rather than that of “honourable amateurs”. Darlington is quite regretful about dismissing the two Jewish servant girls, but considers their continued employment inappropriate. Later he expresses his remorse at this, and asks what happened to them. Miss Kenton replies that she tried to place them at another house, but was unsuccessful and does not know what became of them.

In the ‘present’ of the film, depicted in parallel, but set twenty years after in the late fifties, it is revealed that Darlington died a broken man, his reputation destroyed after his role in the appeasement had been exposed in the papers. When the subject comes up in conversation with various people he meets during his journey, Stevens admits to being the butler at Darlington Hall, but initially denies having served or even met Darlington. It is clear now that he recognises his former master’s failings, and several times he indicates that he has regrets about his own life, as does Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) when they finally meet. Kenton declines his offer to return to Darlington Hall, announcing instead that she wanted to stay with her husband and to be near to her recently born granddaughter. At the end of his visit Stevens departs for Darlington hall in a clichéd downpour of rain. Kenton cries, while Stevens, still unable to show any emotion or feeling toward her, simply raises his hat.

One of the striking things about this story is that there are no villains. Darlington is depicted as basically honourable, more patsy than true fascist. Even the German dignitaries, all minor characters, are only villains by proxy, who are never depicted undertaking anything villainous. The tragedy for the two major characters is a consequence, not of the villainy of others, but of the circumstances in which they find themselves, and their own imperfections, in particular their inability, even in their later years, to depart from the script prepared for them, to make better use of the remains of the day.

* * * * * *

No film review by me would be complete without gender-analysis. Given the period and the nature of the story, there was little opportunity for the film-makers to challenge gender-stereotypes. None of the characters departed from their class- and gender-ordained roles. There was only one major female character, and although several other female characters were named, I never noted them talking about anything other than a man. As previously mentioned, Mrs Lewis does not appear in the film at all, and the character’s only purpose seems to be to make Mr. Lewis respectably married.

Another gender-stereotype that interests me, though I have not yet formalised it as a “measure” is the depiction of violence toward and death and injury of male and female characters. No violence at all was depicted in the film. Overall there were three character deaths, all male, one injured male, and two females missing, possibly dead. Stevens’ elderly father tripped and fell, though he was not seriously hurt. Later he died of a stroke. The dramatic purpose of these events was to elaborate Stevens’ personality and his relationship with miss Kenton. Toward the end of the film, it was revealed that Darlington’s nephew (Hugh Grant) – a supporting character during the pre-war narrative – had died in the war. This was to illustrate the personal impact of the failure of Darlington’s politics. Finally Darlington himself died of a heart attack, allowing Lewis to take over Darlington hall, representing the replacement of the old order by the new. None of these deaths were shown on screen. The other characters did not respond casually or dismissively to them (a stereotypical treatment of male death). Nor does the author’s/scriptwriter’s choice of the victims’ gender seem to be based on a gender stereotype. Rather all three seem to be dictated by non-stereotypical considerations.

The same cannot be said for the two Jewish girls who were dismissed on Darlington’s orders. Kenton was unable to place them at another house, and did not know what became of them. The implication is that it is likely that they were returned to Germany thence to become Holocaust victims. The dramatic purpose of this was to show the human consequences of Darlington’s politics, and how Stevens, Kenton, and Darlington himself reacted to them. The house employed serpents of both sexes, so there is no reason why they had to be two girls, rather than a girl and a boy, or two boys, other than the gender stereotype that we care more about what happens to girls than to boys.

* * * * * *

In summary: an excellent film which had the misfortune to be up against Schindler’s List in the 1994 Oscars, and had to make do with eight nominations only. If you get the opportunity, go watch it. Watch Schindler’s List too.

Crossposted between Creative Destruction and DaRain Man. Also posted, with modifications to Wikipedia


  1. I have to disagree on its quality. I saw it in 1993 and deemed it the most boring movie I’d ever seen in my entire life.

    This film has so much context, understatement and restraint that it is almost impossible to discern the underlying plot, conflict or theme. Also, this is one of my films so full of middle aged white guys in suits with similar mannerisms that it is even hard to keep track of who is who.

    Comment by ohwilleke — December 28, 2006 @ 4:46 pm | Reply

  2. I saw it in 1993 and deemed it the most boring movie I’d ever seen in my entire life.

    Can’t please everyone.

    Comment by Daran — December 28, 2006 @ 5:12 pm | Reply

  3. The gender stereotypes were a bit unnecessary…

    Comment by daphn — May 23, 2013 @ 2:49 am | Reply

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