Dir. James Ivory. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, James Fox
Someone famous and distant is supposed to have said, “Hominem unius libri timeo,” or, “I fear the man of one book.” The phrase is pleasingly ambiguous. One might fear the man of “one book” because he has great learning in a subject which outstrips our own; an expert in a single discipline who has given his whole life to it is a formidable person indeed. One might also fear the man of “one book” because he is clueless about every other discipline outside his chosen subject, and that person must be an equally formidable opponent. Stevens (Hopkins), the butler of Darlington Hall, is an impressive figure in the house. Raised by a man in service, the other Mr. Stevens (Peter Vaughan), he is utterly devoted to his career. He possesses only as much imagination as a butler can be allowed to possess, which, in other words, is entirely professional.
Stevens does not project sadness so much as we read it into him. He is in his fifties by the looks of him, and he has nothing of his own to show for his life. He has done a good job of managing a wealthy man’s house. He has never made anything that lasted. He has no wife or children, nor does he show much interest. Lord Darlington (Fox) foists off on Stevens the task of teaching his godson, Reginald Cardinal (Hugh Grant) the “birds and the bees.” It’s not a lesson that Stevens ever completes, and almost certainly not a lesson that Cardinal needs; the former doesn’t get much past the idea of “nature,” while the latter, aside from looking like Hugh Grant back when that was a good thing, knows rather more about fish than birds and bees. It’s a funny scene, and given a conversation that Stevens and Cardinal have later, a surprisingly important one. It also raises a fair question: is it possible that Stevens is a virgin? Darlington may ask Stevens to teach his godson about sex, but Darlington couldn’t possibly have asked Stevens to bang someone for him.
Hopkins may have won his Best Actor for Silence of the Lambs – an award which, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, should have been Best Supporting Actor – but there’s a much more interesting body of work in The Remains of the Day. Hopkins is really in his element here as a man who expresses his feelings according to how many words he uses in a sentence. He is not immune to feeling, which seems to strike him on inopportune nights. His father dies on the last night of a conference hosted by Darlington in order to create greater sympathy for Nazi Germany among the British nobility. He finds out that Miss Kenton (Thompson) is to be married to another man and will be leaving service at Darlington Hall on the same night that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet visit Darlington Hall on the eve of the Munich Conference. In both cases he seems confused; his superiors have to ask him if he’s all right, if he needs a moment. He assures them that he’s quite well and then reverts to his state of obvious disarray. During the night of his father’s death, at first it seems like he’s pushing his feelings down for professional reasons. He will deal with the issue later, when he is free to do so. (Even if not all of us would do the same thing, that’s at least a little relatable.) But as the night continues, the issue at hand isn’t that he’s at work. The problem is that he has no idea how to feel. It’s the greatest emotional ask that anyone has requested of him in years, maybe ever, and after hearing the request he doesn’t have the strength to answer its call. It’s like being told to eat a birthday cake or a whole pizza after two weeks of fasting; he doesn’t have the room inside anymore.
Miss Kenton poses a similar problem for him. The two of them are clearly invested in one another, even beyond Stevens’ stultifying professionalism and Miss Kenton’s more humane approach to her job as housekeeper. In one scene, where she tries to figure out what kind of book he’s reading – as usual, Stevens is being bleedin’ mysterious about himself – Kenton’s fingers appear to be everywhere. The two of them barely touch, but there’s an incredible electricity between the two of them. Hopkins recedes into the shadows, where the weak light on Thompson’s face illuminates her smile while casting her hands in and out of darkness as she tries to grab the book. He eventually backs her off. Later on, after a trying day, Miss Kenton asks Mr. Stevens if they might hold off this evening meeting due to her fatigue. I should have been more considerate, Stevens replies. We will not have these meetings anymore so as to alleviate your fatigue. She tries to express that it’s a single experience, but Stevens is too hurt – and too out of practice with reacting healthily to his feelings – to be reasonable. Perhaps we will only communicate through notes, he says before leaving.
Part of the genius of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel, which is of course part of the movie as well, is that Stevens is given so many opportunities to feel but cannot grasp any of them. In 1936, with the Nazi threat still a few years away, Darlington’s conference to react generously to Hitler’s regime is clearly misguided but also understandable within the time period. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain comes to Darlington and, it is implied, is encouraged by the master of the house to make a deal allowing Hitler to take the Sudetenland. Cardinal, by this time a journalist, tries to get Stevens to spy on the meeting a little bit in order to help him write a story. (Cardinal was tipped off about the meeting and so shows up at Darlington, claiming to have had reservations fall through at a hotel.) Aren’t you upset about this? Cardinal asks, a little drunk. Doesn’t it bother you that Darlington – my beloved godfather, a noble and “honorable” man – is encouraging the British government to be Hitler’s stepping stone to greater power? Stevens is impassive. Not only does he know nothing outside Darlington Hall, the world that does not fit into his one book, but he’s also been put in his place as an example by one of Darlington’s friends. That nobleman quizzes Stevens about Daladier, about inflation. Stevens is ignorant of such matters, and so, the nobleman concludes, so are the rest of his ilk. Why should they be in charge of policy when none of them know anything more than Stevens here. Years later, after Darlington has died in disgrace as Britain’s leading Nazi collaborator, Stevens tries to explain to a stranger (Pip Torrens) his own feelings on the man and his opinions. By the end of his life he knew he was in the wrong, Stevens says. But it wasn’t my place to question him one way or another. The stranger doesn’t understand that Stevens managed to turn off most of his brain for the majority of his life, that it would have been undignified and unseemly to contradict Darlington’s actions with something so treacherous as his own emotions. Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, would have understood if she had been there. Given the outbreak of World War II and the departure of the woman he loves, one on top of the other, one would think that Stevens would make a choice to feel something. But the synapses simply don’t fire for him, either due to self-control or self-abnegation.
There’s another Latin phrase I’m fond of: “Pro captu habent sua fata libelli,” which sorts out as “Books have their destiny according to the reader.” Stevens, the man of one book through and through, bears some level of culpability for the blank slate that his life is even into his seventies. It was not necessary for him to swallow every bit of Darlington’s propaganda without trying to sort it out for himself. (Miss Kenton is proof that “Fire the Jews because they’re Jews” is not a command that a good servant has to take lying down.) It was not necessary for him to remain ignorant of the world outside because he was so absorbed in making sure the plates were the right distance from the silverware. Nor was it necessary for him to keep his ardent feelings for Miss Kenton inside because he had previously looked down on relationships between staff members. His grief upon hearing that he will be unable to entice her back to Darlington under a new master is palpable – if you watch carefully, you can see his soul leave his body – but there’s no one to blame but himself. A good butler does not raise his voice, and Stevens, who made it his life’s work to go beyond good to sheer perfection, cannot lift it even in his greatest moment of exigency.