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'The Remains of the Day': What the Butler Didn't See
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
04:04PM / Friday, June 26, 2020
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I wish that I were reviewing one of the half-dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.

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Director James Ivory's "The Remains of the Day" (1993), about a butler and housekeeper's relationship, a la "Downton Abbey," in pre-WWII England, came to mind as I fussed with the ridiculously skimpy napkins the food market sent me in these Pandemic times.
 
While I chuckled with accompanying sigh at their seeming uselessness, in the wonder that comes of having immersed one's self in the movies, I for the moment became Anthony Hopkin's brilliantly portrayed Stevens, butler extraordinaire to James Fox's Lord Darlington. As such, and knowing in body and soul that my superior bred employer depended on there being properly representing napkins at table, especially with all the brahmins regularly visiting the estate in hopes of preserving world peace, I crafted a solution.
 
In a blend of fastidiousness and patience that can only be properly achieved when totally dedicated to being in service, I found that by unfolding five of the flimsy yet surprisingly multilayered napkins, placing them atop each other and refolding, I created a proper serviette. Painstaking? Indeed. Worthwhile? It is not my place to speculate or philosophize, but to see that my master's stately position is accurately reflected.
 
Such is the theme and mindset permeating the grand dramedy of manners Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adapted for the screen from Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro's novel for her 17th collaboration with filmmakers James Ivory and Ishmail Merchant. Done in recollection, harking back from the time Emma Thompson's sublimely realized Miss Kenton comes to manage housekeeping duties under the esteemed authority of Mr. Hopkins' head servant, it is, among several other delves into the human condition, a love story.
 
There's no surprise there as the judiciously streamed exposition early on allows that Cupid, albeit in one his subtlest interventions, will have something to say about the professional demeanor expected and required of servants in high-ranking positions. It is among the first subjects broached in Mr. Stevens' interview of Miss Kenton. While her declaration of single-minded devotion to craft is assuredly accepted by her future boss, he nonetheless feels a need to impress his feelings on the matter by stating: "If two members of staff have to fall in love and decide to get married, there's nothing one can say. But what I do find a major irritation are those persons who are simply going from post to post looking for romance."
 
So, OK. These two are going to wind up in each other's arms, or not, and it's for us to guess which it'll be, along the way making comparisons to our own romantic histories that hopefully don't evince John Greenleaf Whittier's "saddest words of tongue or pen … It might have been."
 
But no worries if you know the outcome. As with all superbly textured dramatizations, there's always another angle to discover, another hint to interpret or maybe even a complete re-evaluation of scenario and sentiments to consider. Otherwise, there's plenty else to chew on, including two full-bodied subplots — one about the future of the world and one about Stevens' relationship with his Dad (Peter Vaughan), also a butler — that only the most able decipherers could possibly assimilate in one viewing.
 
Responsible history examples the universality of its theorems, and therefore its lessons.
 
Here, the story's notes on Weltpolitik hauntingly weave their way through the mood and aura, inferring but never interfering with the illusory humdrum of the principals, yet there all the same. With the recent revelation that, during a private meeting with President Xi Jinping, Trump had expressed approval of concentration camps for Uighur Muslims in China, a scene in Lord Darlington's study is especially poignant. 
 
Although not up to the task per Christopher Reeves' visiting American envoy, Britishers of the upper crust sort have gathered to play at diplomacy. Sipping his brandy while the storm clouds of WWII form, one of the aristocrats nonchalantly opines: "My Lord, my Lord, you cannot run a country without a penal system. Here we call them prisons. Over there they call them concentration camps. What's the difference?"
 
Well, we know how that worked out.
 
The question that must follow then, with Mr. Stevens the embodiment of detachment from what may or may not affect the commonweal, is does he really believe that such matters are better left to swells like his employer, or is his personal acquiescence a form of cowardice?
 
It's all in the title. As the rationalizations unspool, a road trip to the west of England, including a telling, democratizing layover at a pub where the welcoming regulars take him for a patrician, spurs Stevens' reflections on both his blind obeisance to authority and his hesitance in romantic matters. By now, we have come to like this gentleman's gentleman, an everyman beneath his  tux, and cannot help but sympathize with these, his "Remains of the Day."
 
"The Remains of the Day," rated PG, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by James Ivory and stars Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and James Fox. Running time: 134 minutes
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