In 1958, Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve), a rich American, purchases Darlington Hall, a luxurious country house in England. He tells Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the butler who has served there for over 30 years, to take a holiday. This ever-efficient professional decides to combine business with pleasure by visiting Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), who left her job as housekeeper years ago to marry. Stevens has learned in a letter that she is now estranged from her husband. He hopes to convince her to return to her position at Darlington Hall.
On his little trip, Stevens reminisces about the past. All of his life has been consumed by an attempt to be a "great" butler, which for him has meant embodying the ideals of service, dignity, composure, commitment, and discretion. Stevens looks back with pride to the 1923 conference arranged by Lord Darlington to convince a group of international guests to ease the harsh postwar economic penalties on Germany. While these great figures talk of important matters, it is Stevens's responsibility to keep dinner, drinks, and other amenities humming along smoothly.
However, one price he pays for perfectionism is the necessity of downplaying filial affection. Stevens hires his father, himself a butler, to serve on his staff. When the old man is felled by a stroke during the conference, Stevens lets others look after him. Learning that the old man has died upstairs while he was attending to the guests downstairs, Stevens replies that his father would have supported his decision to carry on with his duties.
The same devotion to duty hobbles his relationship with Miss Kenton, the one romantic prospect in his life. Although he has the highest respect for her talents as a housekeeper, Stevens is annoyed by her lack of decorum. Just after he hires her, she brings flowers to his room to brighten things up. He criticizes her for intruding on his privacy. Another time she catches him off guard reading a sentimental novel. All of her attempts to reach out to him are rebuffed.
Miss Kenton is angered when Stevens orders her to fire two German maids who are Jewish and may be returned to Germany. She expects him to morally protest this act of blatant prejudice. But Stevens defers to Lord Darlington who is now rumored to have Nazi sympathies. When a friend of Miss Kenton proposes marriage, she accepts, perhaps realizing already that Stevens will never change. The eventual reunion between these two employees of Darlington Hall is a bittersweet occasion that enables them both to express their disappointments in life.
The Remains of the Day is a flawless screen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 award-winning novel. The film, beautifully staged by director James Ivory and producers Mike Nichols, John Calley, and Ismail Merchant, is another example of this production company's (Howard's End, A Room with a View) great ability to make the most of the delicate interplay between period, place, and character in a literary masterwork. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, as could be expected, is a triumph of craft. It offers an especially poignant portrait of upper class bigotry, repression, elitism, and disgust for democracy.
The Remains of the Day also boasts virtuoso performances by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the two lead roles. These Academy Award winners know how to mine meanings out of nuance and innuendo. Hopkins plays Stevens as a rigid, humorless, and strait-laced butler whose service to his master leaves no room for his own soul to develop. Emma Thompson is marvelous as the high-spirited Miss Kenton, a gifted housekeeper whose desperate attempts to get Stevens to respond to her affections are doomed. Also good in supporting roles are James Fox as Lord Darlington and Peter Vaughan as Steven's father.
Although set in the past, this film speaks out boldly against misguided professionalism and debilitating perfectionism two behavioral patterns found in many of today's workplaces. Both are lanced as inadequate standards that can lead to unlived lives.