A Gentleman, Through and Through

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Columbia Pictures

We reach Darlington Hall, an immaculate estate in Oxfordshire, just in time for the auction. The voice of Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) informs us that the Darlington family had planned on demolishing the manor following the demise of Lord Darlington (James Fox). She also notes a particular headline, “some rubbish in the Daily Mail which made my blood boil: ‘Traitor’s nest to be pulled down.’” 

In a tent outside the dimly lit hall, rows of Elizabethan paintings are sold. One tableau—A Portly Gentleman—is auctioned off at 11,500 guineas to an American millionaire named Lewis, who will buy the entire mansion and rescue it from demolition. That Lewis is played by Christopher Reeve, whose smooth and chiseled, all-American looks spell nouveau riche, adds a certain jolt to the otherwise staid film: Superman has come to save Darlington Hall from itself. The 18th-century mansion, though in otherwise pristine condition (every inch dusted, the silver constantly polished), is now buckling under the weight of its former Lord’s notorious reputation. Through trickles of information, we learn that Darlington was a fascist sympathizer, or, as one shopkeeper recalls, a “Nazi [who] got us in the war.” Darlington Hall becomes shrouded in notoriety; its centuries of opulence and wretched excess have led to withered decay.  

A showier film would have been more interested in Lord Darlington’s downfall after the war; instead, we learn off the cuff that he died quietly and unceremoniously of heartbreak. But Darlington is not the focus of this Merchant Ivory Production, an adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. With quiet but steely determination and sangfroid, we observe the goings-on of Darlington Hall through the eyes of its head butler, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins). The entire story is in fact a flashback, as Stevens recalls those long-past days working alongside Miss Kenton at the cusp of World War II. It is a prolonged and aching rumination on what could have been—what might have been—at another time, or at least in another Britain. 

It is, furthermore, a 134-minute study of what happens when “duty” and “service” blur into incuriosity, oblivion, and, ultimately, collaboration. 

If you can name another film that personifies so astutely those feelings of regret and melancholy, guilt and repentance, I’ll eat my top hat. 

“A great butler must be possessed of dignity…in keeping with his position.”

In a letter to Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), Mr. Stevens entreats her to rejoin the ranks of Darlington Hall, now under the protection of former Congressman Lewis, who has retired from American political life: “I regret to say we are woefully understaffed for a house this size.” He continues, “Mrs. Benn, will you permit me once again to sing your praises? Let me state that when you left us to get married, no housekeeper ever managed to reach your high standard in any department.” He cannot simply come out with it outright and ask her to return to work alongside him in the austere corridors of Darlington, nor can he admit to her what he has long suppressed. He loves her, has perhaps loved her from that very first day she arrived at the estate. “That day,” he remembers, “is marked in my memory in another way as well: it was the last time His Lordship seemed happy to welcome his neighbors, as in the old days.” Here, the intimate inner life of Stevens—his blissful recall of days long gone—blends with the grander political theater of pre-war Britain. We realize that, for Stevens, the private and the professional are wholly intertwined; his depthless loyalty to an unworthy employer will inevitably cost him any happiness he is due. 

But for now, we return to that fateful day, marked by an elaborate hunting ritual. Stevens reminds us that “it was never a sport His Lordship enjoyed or approved of.” And yet, here we go: a gaggle of men—wearing red and white hunting garb, perched atop immaculately groomed warmbloods, and surrounded by a cluster of barking beagles—gathers in front of the mansion. Servants and butlers come out carrying little trays of (literal gold) goblets. “Excuse me, sir,” says Stevens as he patiently extends his arm, offering one such goblet to a gentleman on horseback. His expression remains, as always, placid—stoic, even—as he blends in with the scenery. As we hear trumpets that beckon the galloping hunters, the men cheer poshly, “Go on!,” leaving Stevens and his underbutlers behind. We are left with the nauseating feeling that this—this system—cannot continue. This rule and order (always that rigid Order) should, and will, eventually topple. 

Shortly after, Stevens—dressed impeccably in a black vest and tie, hair combed back, watch dangling on its chain—approaches Lord Darlington. He claims to have solved their staffing issues: he’s hired Miss Kenton, “a young woman with excellent references, very pleasing demeanor, [who] appears to be very able,” as well as “a man with considerable experience of butlering…now of a certain age, and happy to take on the post of underbutler.” Darlington—seated behind a fine desk; surrounded by ornaments, statuettes, shelves of leather-bound tomes, and fine, brocade curtains—asks only, “Name?” Stevens, without missing a beat, responds drily and humorlessly: “Stevens, sir,” before admitting that the new hire is his father (Peter Vaughan). This surprising response doesn’t arouse much interest in Darlington, who naturally trusts his faithful butler. Much is masked in this interaction; one can sense a whole unspoken history of hierarchy, filial duty, and heavily repressed emotion, but Hopkins’ Stevens and Vaughan’s Stevens Sr. speak merely in clipped and obsequious tones. 

We will later learn that Stevens Sr. has “waited at table” every day for the past 54 years. In one of the few ‘downstairs’ scenes that feature the entire staff eating together, Stevens Sr. regales the crowd with tales of past honorable butlers. Surrounded by mounted antlers, dining off of crisp white tablecloths and blue porcelain, the wait staff themselves enjoy a certain conspicuous consumption. 

Speaking slowly, deliberately, holding the other maids and underbutlers in rapt attention, he recounts the tale of an English butler in India. “One day,” he begins, “he goes in the dining room and what’s he see under the table? A tiger. Not turning a hair, he goes straight to the drawing room. ‘Hum, hum. Excuse me, my Lord,’ and whispering, so as not to upset the ladies: ‘I’m very sorry, my Lord. There appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps His Lordship will permit use of the 12-bores?’” After three gunshots, of which His Lordship and the ladies “think nothing…this being out in India where they’re used to anything,” the butler goes back to refresh the teapots, announcing, “cool as a cucumber: ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time, my Lord. And I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time.’” As Stevens Sr. basks in his audience’s warm laughter, he repeats the ‘punchline’: “There will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time!” Stevens looks at his father with pride and affection, recognizing in this anecdote the core principles of his trade: dignity—always dignity. 

But soon after this scene, signs of slippage occur, starting with an abandoned dustbin on the perfectly polished hardwood floors. Stevens Sr., who is by now in his mid-70s and has only known a life of service, begins to lose his touch. Hauntingly, the film’s score highlights the menacing undertones of the underbutler’s senility: cracks in the seemingly perfect veneer begin to appear. They do not go unnoticed; Miss Kenton calls out his inability to perform the basic functions of his job. His gaffes include a dripping nose while ‘waiting at table’ and some misplaced chinoiserie (in itself an immediate indicator of Darlington’s vast aristocratic affluence and prowess). The system is breaking down, slowly but inevitably. 

Stevens seems unwilling to heed Miss Kenton’s warning until, in a shocking slow-motion moment, his father trips over a piece of tile on the patio while carrying a tray of ornate silver tea service. Darlington and his fellow mustachioed aristocrats watch in barely veiled dismay (disgust?) as Stevens Sr. collapses, but the camera does not focus on the fallen underbutler; our attention settles on the broken china, the cracked dishes and teacups. The mistake will not be made again, as Darlington insists that Stevens Sr. “reconsider his duties.”

“I was too busy serving to listen to the speeches.”

Not long after, a game-changing conference occurs at Darlington Hall. For months, Stevens, Miss Kenton, and the droves of wait staff have been polishing each piece of silver, measuring the distance between plates, avoiding touching the stems of the wine glasses for fear of taint.

“Each one of you has his own particular duty,” Stevens informs the staff. “Polished brass, brilliant silver, mahogany shining like a mirror. That is the welcome we will show these foreign visitors—to let them know they are in England, where order and tradition still prevail.” The German and French ambassadors arrive, as does Congressman Lewis. The tension is palpable as Lewis attempts, as the voice of reason, to persuade France to turn against the growing fascist tide in Germany. 

Right before the dinner—as if Stevens doesn’t have enough on his plate—Lord Darlington asks his butler to speak to his beloved godson, Reginald Cardinal (a dashing Hugh Grant) about the, ahem, facts of life. Darlington feels some responsibility for the young man, who is about to be married, but is too embarrassed to handle the conversation himself—even this, this most human interaction, is outsourced to the staff. In a hilariously awkward and bumbled scene outside in the garden, Stevens chokes out something about the “glories of nature” to the bemused Reginald; all of this, of course, takes place against the backdrop of impending war and death. Inside, the fate of Europe is being decided, but this seemingly inane moment represents a greater systemic rot: both Stevens and Darlington are so damn hollow, so inept, so deeply impoverished in every meaningful way. 

But this night will be memorable for other reasons. At the grand, stately dinner, the Germans thank their hosts for their demonstrated “goodwill for Germany.” Stevens stands at steady attention in the background as a tightly coiled and coiffed frau declares that “Germany…desires only peace.” Congressman Lewis can barely restrain his grimace, before standing up and announcing to the tuxedoed crowd, “You are, all of you, amateurs. And international affairs should never be run by gentlemen amateurs…The days when you could just act out of your noble instincts are over.” As the dinner guests look on glumly, Lewis continues, “What you need is not gentlemen politicians, but real ones.” Stevens’ expression is impassive, inscrutable, as a younger underbutler rushes over to deliver bad news about his father.  

Earlier in the day, Stevens Sr. had suffered a stroke, and we watched in quiet agony as the old man attempted a final goodbye: “I hope I’ve been a good father to you. I tried me best.” We can detect the faintest glimmer on Stevens’ face, but he is nonetheless eager to get back to banquet preparations, announcing curtly, “We’ll talk in the morning.” Except they won’t ever have that chance: as Congressman Lewis gives his impassioned speech, Stevens Sr. passes away quietly, uneventfully. Miss Kenton tearfully informs her colleague, who can barely muster any emotional response before returning to serve Darlington and his guests. It’s a shocking scene, but one that merely paves the way for the narrative upset that marks the halfway point of the film. 

“I was there to serve him, not to agree or disagree.”

Darlington has recently hired two German-Jewish refugee girls, Elsa and Irma, as maids. At first, he seems keen to practice his poorly accented German, but later, as the girls sweep up ashes from his fireplace, we are privy to his voiceover as he reads a nauseatingly antisemitic text, every so often peering in their direction. What happens next should kindle any kind of fire dormant within Stevens; that it does not lays bare his deep and utter culpability. 

“Stevens,” Darlington begins, “We have some refugee girls on the staff at the moment, I believe…you’ll have to let them go.” Steven simply repeats what His Lordship has demanded—hoping, perhaps, that he had misheard. Darlington continues in terrifying doublespeak: “It’s regrettable, Stevens, but we have no choice. You’ve got to see the whole thing in context. I have the well-being of my guests to consider.” For the first and only time, we hear a glimmer of dissent in Stevens’ voice, as he calmly responds, “My Lord, may I say…they work extremely well. They’re intelligent, polite, and very clean.” His insistence on their cleanliness—as if they, too, were items on display in the luxurious manor—does not dissuade Darlington, who finally comes out with it: “I’m sorry, Stevens, but I’ve looked into this matter very carefully. There are larger issues at stake.” When he spits out disdainfully, “They’re Jews,” Stevens sharply inhales. As Stevens, Hopkins seems to shrink into the space: tightly wound, ever so slightly hunched, as if to appear smaller, imperceptible. Here, though, we perceive a minute burst of emotion; he is disappointed in His Lordship—stunned, perhaps—but tragically can only mutter, “Yes, my Lord.” 

When Miss Kenton is told that they must let the girls go (back to a horrible destiny, as both the film and history almost explicitly inform us), she cries out at Stevens that it’s “a sin!” In Thompson’s portrayal of the flawed but deeply sympathetic housekeeper, we have Stevens’ counterpoint: she is an excellent servant, as we’re often told, but she never once sacrifices her humanity. Having threatened to quit if the girls are forced out, she feels guilty when she recognizes that she is, in reality, unable to depart her job, her life at Darlington Hall: “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. That’s all my high principles are worth, Mr. Stevens. I’m ashamed of myself.” 

We see the small flame of Stevens’ inner world flicker later in the film, when Miss Kenton walks in on him reading a book in the shadows. She assumes that it’s something “racy” and teases him, then taunts him, to reveal the cover. The camera lingers interminably as the music mounts until, finally, Miss Kenton physically pries Stevens’ fingers, one by one, from the book. The gesture of the frozen, buckled hands creates an eerie parallel to the stiff fingers of Stevens Sr. after his stroke earlier in the film, suggesting the younger Stevens’ utter emotional numbness. 

His spiritual desert is disturbing on its own but downright maddening when taken in the context of his employer’s evil collaboration with Nazism. Furthermore, he cannot say that he was not warned: let’s remember Congressman Lewis and even Reginald’s impassioned pleas to convince Darlington to break loose from Germany’s grip. Not only will Reginald have been right all along, but he will have in fact prophesied his eventual death during the war, of which we are informed only offhandedly by Stevens in a conversation with Miss Kenton. Several decades have passed: Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, laments the mistakes that she has made in her life. We have been waiting for this encounter between Stevens and his former housekeeper for more than two hours. Miss Kenton had left Darlington Hall not long after a disastrously doomed formal state dinner (featuring none other than German ambassador and Nuremberg detainee Joachim von Ribbentrop). She cried that final night, desperate to admit her affection—her unspoken love—for Stevens, but the repressed butler had only been able to administer a scolding: “I’ve been wanting to tell you…It’s the small alcove outside the breakfast room…I find it has not been dusted in some time.” 

This, the film implies, is Stevens’ one true regret: not acquiescing to an unapologetic fascist, not sending those Jewish refugees back to certain death, but wasting his one opportunity to find love. His frequent excuse for why he never disagreed with his employer—his utter indifference, because “to listen to the gentlemen’s conversations would distract me from my work”—becomes a metonym for the fascist wave that sweeps over Europe. 

And yet, one cannot stop wishing Stevens some measure of happiness, however undeserved. It is, alas, a futile desire, for as Mrs. Benn turns down his barely worded proposal to return to Darlington Hall, to live out the remains of her days in service to another master, Mr. Stevens must bid her farewell for the last time: “You must try to do all you can to make these years happy ones for yourself and for your husband.” Tearfully, she gets on the bus, leaving Stevens behind—back to Darlington, back to an eternal twilight.