An unwavering sense of duty cinches tight around the soul of James Stevens, the central character in The Remains of the Day. This singular focus makes Stevens an impeccable butler, but it also forms a tourniquet, choking off the pathways to love and happiness. Stevens takes great pride in his work until he finds, with great sadness, that the work is he has. Anthony Hopkins boasts a filmography filled with brilliance, but his performance as this tightly wound manservant stands tall. In the hands of Hopkins, Stevens is one of the most complex and tragic characters in all of cinema: He declares his occupational goal to make any room feel emptier by being in it, but this dedication renders the rest of his life empty as well.
The film moves between two timelines: In 1958, Darlington Hall, the manor where Stevens works, is being settled by Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve), a dashing American millionaire. Lewis dispatches Stevens to the English countryside to find a suitable housekeeper. Stevens reaches out to Sally Kenton (Emma Thompson), a charming, brilliant woman who filled the position many years ago. We then flashback to tumultuous, pre-WWII days, when the bustling house was headed by Lord Darlington (James Fox), a suave, genteel, and fatally misguided nobleman.
In their earliest days, Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton don’t get along much: She’s too outspoken, too quick to smile, while he comes across as an icy, obsessive-compulsive prick. They clash when Stevens hires his senile, doddering father (Peter Vaughan) to work in the dining room, a duty for which Miss Kenton feels him unfit. This rift paradoxically brings them closer: He is drawn to her warmth and compassion, and she believes his emotional stonemasonry hides something vulnerable and deeply human. As the years pass, Miss Kenton tries to shatter the bricks faster than Mr. Stevens can lay them. Their simmering love and loyalty get tested when it becomes apparent that Lord Darlington is a Nazi sympathizer.
Like its main character, The Remains of the Day moves with a methodical, meticulous pace. The relentless, chromatic scales in Richard Robbins’ score give the film the steady march of a clock’s second hand. Director James Ivory fills each scene with remarkable beauty and texture: Even when Stevens and Kenton stand in a downpour, it feels like a work of art. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s script brims with intelligence, even if most of the characters use their overpowered vernacular to hide what they’re really thinking.
That might be what makes this Merchant-Ivory production one of the greatest films ever made: So much of this story lies within feelings that can never be expressed or words that die on the tip of a tongue. Within the silence of this movie, you will find a gulf between what could be and what will never be. Mr. Stevens is a man who hides his pain and regret in plain sight. He aches, and we ache for him. The Remains of the Day is a film that will reward your patience with a frustrating, fascinating character study that seems to get better with every viewing.