“It is not my place to be curious about such matters”
Unexpectedly, I caught up with Remains of the Day on TV while resting my encased leg. It was the first time for a number of years that I’ve seen the brilliant Ruth Prawer Jhabvala-scripted Merchant/Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Booker-winning novel, regarded by many as the most exquisite jewel in the illustrious Merchant/Ivory crown – a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs for the intelligentsia.
Those who don’t like it probably say that not much happens, slowly, though against the sweeping backdrop of a great house during through war, peace and history being made, the real underlying themes are communicated with admirable and subtle dexterity non-verbally rather than by spoken language.
No doubt in my mind that subtlety is a greatly undervalued quality; but to communicate effectively in this manner, you need a great cast – and there are few better than the cast gathers by M&I. They are led by Anthony Hopkins at his most deferential, a role some consider to be one of the finest captured on film; Hopkins is joined by Emma Thompson, whom I consider our finest actress at present, whose performance delivers in turn spirit and frustration.
As James Stevens, Hopkins is a loyal and devoted butler to Lord Darlington (James Fox), his family such as it is, his friends and his international contacts. Stevens’ sense of duty and deference is second to none, even if at times he appears smug and supercilious to those whom he considers inferiors. Stevens determined to know his place and not push boundaries, even when they are conflicted through the employment of his ailing father, Mr Stevens senior (Peter Vaughan) as an under-butler.
Stevens therefore represents continuity, admires and respects the aristocracy and will defer to them even when he knows them to be wrong – such as when his Nazi-appeasing master hosts events replete with Nazi sympathisers, and later dismisses two German-Jewish refugees who have been appointed maids, in spite of their work and the risks of expelling them. He does not even appear fazed when his master is branded a Nazi-condoning traitor.
With the staff, his underlings, Stevens represents a benevolent and paternalistic dictator, one obeyed with the same deference as he gives His Lordship. Woe betide anyone who disobeys or fails to meet his expected standards of behaviour, performance or decorum, for they will be out on their ear within the hour.
Thompson’s Miss Sarah “Sally” Kenton (later Mrs Benn after marriage), is, by contrast, a sharply efficient housekeeper, recruited by Mr Stevens in the 30s and still there in the 50s, in spite of questioning his authority. Rightly so too, for he is, for all his efficiency and dignity, a stubborn and mutton-headed chap who sees but fails to observe. He fails to spot Miss Kenton’s growing affection and love until it is too late, and she, with her own sense of duty and deference, feels unable to break the ironclad rules of British aristocratic domesticity, as applied to downstairs staff, by proposing to him.
Bear in mind the truism that butlers are famously more conservative than their masters, though Stevens scrupulously avoids comment on matters political (hence the quote above – highly discreet though Stevens would surely lean to the right.) In the course of a lifetime of uncritical service to his gentleman, Stevens sacrifices his own life for the master, and, after the death of Lord Darlington and the purchase of Darlington Hall, his home for a lifetime by a renowned retired American politician who attended the pre-war conference.
For such men all hope is lost, which is the major theme. The life of Stevens is a tableau to constancy and the status quo, while everything changes all around. His is a life grounded in concealing emotions and retaining a stiff upper lip, whatever he feels – except when on his own in the cellar he drops a bottle of vintage wine.
Indeed, Miss Kenton asks him why he hides his feelings, but they are distracted, the moment is lost and the subject is changed to discourse about another member of staff. On each occasion he misconstrues her mood and needs, such is his total lack of empathy.
He fails when she mentions she is considering marriage to Mr Benn, indeed fails when he stumbles across Miss Kenton privately in tears. And even when meeting her years later after her marriage has ended, she explains how the great days at Darlington Hall were the happiest of her life – and he fails her yet again. He offers her a chance to come back into service at Darlington Hall, but her daughter is pregnant and her life is in the West Country. It never occurs to him that he might move to be with her.
Stevens represents an attitude that has all but died out, though people lacking in feeling or understanding of their fellow man are very much alive and well in the 21st Century. To record that at different levels requires a practiced hand, and Ivory’s mastery of his material and its mood is evident throughout. Rarely if ever has another director captured the feel of period drama, or indeed the passage of years.
He always did gather together an exemplary cast, and this is no exception. Hopkins, Thompson, Vaughan and Fox apart, there are the likes of Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant, the late Tim Pigott-Smith, Michael Lonsdale and many more fine actors contributing to a magnificent ensemble, all performing creditably. The piece looks and sounds spot-on too. There may well be mistakes but I did not spot them. This is quality film-making, the sort of which we Brits should rightly be proud.
The ending is symbolically satisfying too, more so than the frustrating inaction deliberately portrayed though the film – a pigeon is trapped in a room in the Hall before being freed. The camera pulls away over English countryside and leaves the Master and Servant to their lonely existences, devoid of the stuff of life. Although the setting is very different, I’m reminded of Terence Davies‘s magnificent Distant Voices, Still Lives – the title says all you need to know of the comparison.