'Remains of the Day' is a nearly flawless story of a repressed soul

November 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Remains of the Day," the powerful new Merchant-Ivory film that opens today at the Senator, is about the remains of the soul. What's left after a lifetime spent locked in the clammy grip of that most human of failings, the force called repression"The Remains of the Day," the powerful new Merchant-Ivory film that opens today at the Senator, is about the remains of the soul. What's left after a lifetime spent locked in the clammy grip of that most human of failings, the force called repression? You know the Big R: All true feelings are crumpled into a wet little ball in service to some seemingly important yet very abstract value like "Duty" or "Dignity" or "Honor" and held so close to the heart that it takes a major emotional surgery to even see them. So what remains? The melancholy answer is not much.

Literally, it's almost a clinical lab test on repression. It examines three or so varieties -- emotional, sexual, political -- against a background of history and society and follows a character who may as well have been a lab rat -- a butler -- from 1933 to 1958. It dryly chronicles the wreckage as he gives himself up to it almost totally.

Stevens is the perfect servant, a man with a starched spine and the perfectly brilliantined hair of a ceramic dummy. He's so dedicated to duty he cannot leave his post when his own father is dying on the floor above. Wouldn't be right, you know. What would the guests say? Can't have that.

Stevens is played by the great Anthony Hopkins with knockout brilliance; he's like a very tightly wound watch, an essay in human control, into the zen of perfect servitude. He will even allow himself to be humiliated by an overbearing and clearly moronic guest if it will please the master (an excruciating scene, by the way.) He has no vanities and no weaknesses; his personality is sublimated so totally into the job it seems to be nothing more than a polished mahogany chest of drawers. He's a pharaoh: the king of denial.

Yet Hopkins the actor always finds ways of just so subtly hinting at the lost man inside: now and then a cast will come into his eyes, the smallest shading of feeling. Or there'll be a tremor, a twitch, an off note in the modulated vocabulary, a small, pitiful banality (he reads treacly romance novels). In many ways it's a more frightening role than his turn as Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs." That's because there's very little of Lecter in the person sitting between the two guys on either side of you, but there's a painful amount of Stevens.

Built of haunted flashbacks, "Remains of the Day" opens in the late '50s, when Stevens has been permitted by his new employer, a retired American congressman, to drive across England to interview a possible new housekeeper, who actually served at Darlington Hall in the '30s. As Stevens travels horizontally he also travels vertically, into his own memory, and we see the events play out in flashback that forever isolated him.

In the '30s, Darlington Hall, a great manor somewhere outside London, seemed the center of the world and Stevens its master. His downstairs lair reflected almost in mirror image the power of Lord Darlington (James Fox), who ruled the upstairs. It was a world of perfect order and discipline and it is part of the magnificence of the film that director James Ivory (working, as usual, from a script by Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala, which in turn is drawn from Kazuo Ishiguro's prize-winning novel) allows us to enjoy this world even as he subverts it.

Stevens' key relationship is with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper (Emma Thompson). She's just as prim and efficient as he is, but lovely all the same. And she loves him. And he loves her. They just don't know it. Like "The Age of Innocence," "Remains of the Day" is a dirge for a love that never expresses itself in the mingling of flesh. These wacky kids don't even suck face. It's a love built on rumors and whispers and shadows, and has the gossamer weight of a haunting refrain, a lyric we cannot quite remember. And so sad. He has no vocabulary to express his need of her and his feelings toward her confuse him so, and threaten to upset him so, that he flees blindly from them, the fool, the mad fool.

That's downstairs. Upstairs, another drama is going on. Lord Darlington, it turns out, is an idiot. Ivory makes this point by always photographing him as a kind of dotty drifter; he never has much to do, he never works, he just seems to float in and out of the frame. His politics are informed by the dizziest of sentimental excess -- he mourns a German friend killed in World War I -- and for that reason has given himself over to an absurd fondness for the Third Reich. He's one of those dreary appeasers who flocked around Neville Chamberlain and have been judged as harshly by history as any SS Ubersturmbannfuhrer.

Yet so willfully obtuse is Stevens that he's blind to the folly erupting about him as Darlington and a little band of proper English swine labor mightily to hand their country over to Hitler, -- even as the war draws near. Stevens cannot see; it has no meaning to him.

It's a minor flaw in the film that the political aspects of the story are a bit cartoonish and it also permits entrance into the story of Christopher Reeve as an American know-it-all in the movie's one irritating presence. Superman! In Merchant-Ivory? Is nothing sacred?

E9 But "Remains of the Day" is otherwise nearly perfect.

"The Remains of the Day"

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson

Directed by James Ivory

Released by Columbia

Rated PG-13

*** 1/2

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