Blog Directory CineVerse: Why butlers get the blues

Why butlers get the blues

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Remains of the Day, a Merchant Ivory production that earned a bevy of critical love in 1993 and eight Academy Award nominations, stands as one of the best character studies of a servant class figure in all of filmdom. One colossal reason is the stunning performance by Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Stevens, a romantically repressed butler who's too good at his job for his own good. Our CineVerse discussion on this film yesterday (click here to listen to a recording of it) focused on the following talking points:

What strikes you as memorable, unexpected, or surprising about The Remains of the Day?

  • There’s a melancholy and sense of loss and regret that permeates every frame of this film. Stevens comes across as a tragic character and pathetic figure who loses out on the opportunity for romantic and personal growth.
  • It feels like and was marketed to viewers as a love story. Yet we never see the potential couple partake in physical intimacy of any kind or even call each other by their first names. The romantic longing is palpable to the viewer, but ultimately no love is expressed. The ending is awash in utter frustration, as we see Miss Kenton depart on the bus with tears in her eyes.
  • The time shifts are sudden but subtle, with most of the film presented in flashback framing; as with “The Irishman” from last year, we know it’s present day for Stevens when we see him driving or away from the estate.
  • This could be Anthony Hopkins’ finest turn as an actor, which was rewarded when he received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
  • Hopkins, and the film, forces you to pay attention to the slightest cues and clues, as we aren’t privy to his private thoughts. Is it possible he’s na├»ve about matters of the heart and politics? Or is he aware of what’s going on but refusing to commit himself?

Themes on display in this picture

  • The consequences of emotional tunnel vision. Stevens is so focused on his job and professionalism that he cannot see opportunities for growth around him, including the prospect of love, the chance to offer opinions and demonstrate individuality, and the ability to make a personal or political statement of conscience.
  • The indignity of blind obedience to dignity. Stevens explains that dignity is the key component to a successful butler. But his adherence to this principle prevents him from expressing himself emotionally and engaging as a well-rounded human being.
  • The dangers, per Roger Ebert of “a society where tradition is valued, even at the cost of repressing normal human feelings.”
  • The sins of the father are visited upon the son. We see how Stevens carries on the tradition of pride, perfectionism, and professionalism practiced by his father; interestingly, we observe his father falter and fail, which is the fate Stevens is doomed to repeat, assumingly never to leave his servants class status until he likely dies or is physically incapable. Like his father who lost his grip on the tray and trips on the stone, suggesting a lack of balance in his life, Stevens—by the end of the story—is losing his ability to perform his job to the high level he expects. For proof, consider that it is Lewis who is quick enough to capture and free the pigeon from their interiors; this would have been a duty that a skilled butler like Stevens would have probably handled easily as a younger man.
  • Ironic deficiencies. Interestingly, Lord Darlington and his peers pass themselves off as professional diplomats and politicians when, in fact, they are amateurs. They are criticized by Congressman Lewis as “gentleman amateurs” who are trying to run international affairs that should be run by the professionals. Likewise, Steven presents himself as a professional in his work but proves to be an amateur when it comes to love and acting like a fully formed human being.
  • Loss and tragedy. Every major character suffers casualties: Stevens loses the would-be love of his life and his father; Miss Kenton loses Stevens and her husband; Darlington loses his reputation; and his godson Reginald loses his life. The only winner appears to be Lewis, who wins the argument about Darlington and his appeasers being amateurs and claims Darlington’s estate in the end.
  • No one is doomed to a predetermined destiny and societal rank. Stevens believes it’s his duty to live the role of a professional butler, and he doesn’t dare question this status or his position in the pecking order, refusing to offer opinions when asked or jeopardize his station in life. But we see how stifling, stale, and unfulfilling this kind of life and the acquiescence it demands can be. This is a cautionary tale about the importance of living life to the fullest and bucking traditions and sociocultural expectations.

Other films that spring to mind after viewing “The Remains of the Day”

  • Movies featuring butlers or servants as the main character, including My Man Godfrey, The Servant, Being There, and The Butler
  • Other period dramas of the last 30 years, including Howards End, The Piano, The Age of Innocence, Gosford Park, Downton Abbey, and Brideshead Revisited

Other movies from the team of Merchant and Ivory

  • Howards End
  • A Room With a View
  • Maurice
  • The Bostonians
  • The Europeans
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bridge

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