“Life on hold” summarises “The Remains of the Day” (1993), dir: James Ivory

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I must have been around 12 when I first watched the film. It was among the Academy Award nominated films that were part of my “to-watch” list and I was determined to cross it out, despite the fact that the trailer had not triggered my curiosity. The strict environment of the British society of the past century used to cause me some sort of agony as a viewer, perhaps due to the suppressed feelings that these storylines are woven into. So I sat down and watched it, only to end up feeling unfulfilled and frustrated. I was so angry that “nothing happened” between the characters, even after the second chance they were given to reunite and finally, admit their mutual affections. Twelve years later, the film had a completely different effect on me and I would like to write about that.

The film is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel and introduces Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the butler at Darlington Hall who is taking a trip to West Country to visit Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), a former housekeeper (at least 20 years back..) and convince her to resume her role. We follow Mr Stevens during his journey and discover their background story in flashbacks.

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“What I do find a major irritation are those persons who are simply going from post to post looking for romance.” ~ Mr Stevens

Mr Stevens considers his duty to be the highest principle in life, and the explanation for his self-imposed oppression is provided in the first part of the film. His father, a butler himself, has instructed him to place obligation and dignity above all other virtues. As a result, Mr Stevens becomes a servile, loyal and reliable man that allows himself a single ambition and desire; to serve his master to the best of his abilities.

The mask of duty and blind devotion that he wears in order to practice his profession make me wonder whether this unnatural avoidance of intimacy is a comfortable nest he has made for himself, and therefore blaming it on the job requirements could just as well be a convenient excuseI mean, what if he was a gardener, or a chauffeur, wouldn’t he still have found a way to abstain from earthly pleasures? (well.. except for smoking his cigars). Could the firm obsession with his responsibilities as a butler be a mere excuse for protecting himself from the uncertainties and dangers that lurk behind experiencing feelings? I realise of course that I might be projecting my own intentions and thoughts onto his, as I often trick myself in building walls that hold feelings away from my warm, cosy nest of a reality (yet by employing much less dogmatic means than his…).

However, one thing is certain and masterfully conveyed though Hopkins’ performance, Mr Stevens HAS feelings but he constantly suppresses them and often treats Miss Kenton with cruelty (e.g. after having exposed her affections ~in a subtle way~ he finds her crying and dismisses her once again by asking her to attend to a house chore). Acknowledging that fact about the film we can detect a certain similarity with “The Age of Innocence” (1993), “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), and the “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), in all of which duty prevails over sentiment.

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“Yes. I am a coward. I’m frightened of leaving, and that’s the truth. All I see out in the world is loneliness, and it frightens me.” ~ Miss Kenton

The most heartbreaking scene of the film was their final separation at the bus station after having met after 20 years for the first (and last) time. However, the most painful and emotionally charged scene shows Mr Stevens being surprised by Miss Kenton in his room while reading a romance. Hopkins’s defensive body language and piercing stare contribute to the profound sadness I experienced as a viewer. The way he is observing her from up close and the hunger of his gaze could be those of a painter who has only one chance before she disappears forever, only a few seconds to grasp every detail on a butterfly’s wings so that he can portray her most accurately later.

Miss Kenton is a sensible, smart, hard-working woman who does not share Mr Stevens’ extreme views on duty. She is shaken when Lizzy (a housemaid) abandons the stability and future prospects of her job and appoints love as the most fundamental possession in life. She feels tired of waiting for Mr Stevens to express the slightest sign of affection so that she could still hold on to her hope for a more intimate relationship. Following an outburst she experiences that same evening he suggests they put an end to their briefings and in fact, replace them with the exchange of notes. She quickly apologised (“They’re very useful. It was only tonight.”) but the damage was already done. The scene made me wonder whether he traced her apologetic tone and chose to ignore it in order to punish her, or he simply did not possess the ability to spot her emotional state. This is a perfect example of how delicate the balance was between their estrangement and their friendship. A parallelism was drawn in my head; it reminded me of the way I approach a stray cat; I want to earn her trust to feed or caress her and although I do my best not to frighten her, one wrong move, a sudden wave of my hand perhaps, and she’s gone.

Miss Kenton returns from her pleasant evening, announces her decision and confronts Mr Stevens about his cold treatment. She finds a subtle way to highlight how significant his presence is in her life. Personally, I perceive her example about his mannerisms to be translated as such: “You are important to me, so I observe you and I know you well by now. I love the face you make when there’s too much pepper in your food, just like all the little things that make you so unique. I love telling stories about you because it makes me feel closer to you.” 

Despite being shocked by Miss Kenton’s marriage announcement Mr Stevens religiously keeps up his masquerade, and so he does 20 years later when she spares him from having to make his offer only to have her refuse it. The kindness of her character surprised me, as well as her endless efforts to bring emotion in the centre of their conversation, by being open about her feelings about her husband, Mr Stevens, and her life inventory.

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Lessons I learnt from “The Remains of the day”:

  • Do not allow yourself to strive to be only one thing, invest in various roles in life instead. What good will it do you if you strip yourself from the joys of life, in order to be the best employee? In the long run your life might seem deprived of meaning, or even worse seem like a terrible waste. In Mr Steven’s case, he realised toward the end of his life that the noble man he had served for many years was far from perfect and superior in judgement (He was labeled a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor due to his naivety, and died a broken man). Be open-minded and prepared for your emotional needs to potentially shift later in life. By being proactive and adaptable, and by leading a multi-faceted life, you don’t risk facing a dead-end street along the way.
  • Always express your feelings and be honest with yourself and others, even when your pride is at stake. I will not repeat cliché phrases regarding a lifetime’s  length however, regret is a terrible punishment we inflict upon ourselves. I believe it is a punishment because we always face a choice and we should normally prefer the route with the lowest emotional cost. Regret seems to be the premium emotional burden. Therefore, we ought to realise that placing our safety and risk aversion above a new, desirable prospect is a conscious choice that we make and has repercussions for our future. I suspect that if Mr Stevens had been entirely honest with himself and had chosen to act upon his impulses instead of burying them, he would have allowed himself a far more fulfilling life than the one he led. In other words, he would have been happier and would have made others happier, which is the ultimate duty of us all.

I’d like to close with an extract from the novel that contains the essence of the story:

“In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had…..There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.” ~ Kazuo Ishiguro

 

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Author: CinémAmoureuse

I grew up in Athens and have adored cinema since I was a kid. My very first intense cinematic experience was the Titanic at the age of 5. I love the 40-60's b&w Hollywood era and I enjoy expressing my amateur thoughts on all films that come my way.

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