Remains of the Day

Movies for the Resistance: The Remains of the Day

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Peter Vaughn and Hugh Grant
Directed by: James Ivory
Running time: 134 minutes
Rating: PG
Year of release: 1993


There’s always a reason to ignore the voice in your head: the one that says, “this isn’t okay.” There’s always something else that seems more important at the time. You come up with excuses, and they might even be good ones, but they exist solely to let you ignore the truth. By the time you realize the mistake, it’s too late, and no amount of atonement can ever balance the scales again. The Remains of the Day holds a lot beneath its surface by design: a critique of the English class system, a tragedy of finite time lost, a quiet commentary on the grim choices offered to women in the first half of the 20th Century. But more than anything else, it lets us meditate on how willfully blind we can be to great wrongs in front of us, solely because we believe that tolerating them serves some greater good.

Following last week’s 63-car pile-up in the West Wing, we’ve watched the GOP slowly, haltingly come to grips with the train they’ve hooked their wagon to. Sadly for them, they’re at least a year too late, and as this grows worse – as it does almost literally by the hour – they won’t escape the Devil’s Bargain they made for reasons many of them believed were the right ones.

James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) can tell them all about it. He serves as the ultimate embodiment of the proper manservant: devoted to his aristocratic Lord Darlington (James Fox) in every way, maintaining a perfect household, and ensuring that even the tiniest detail adheres to strictly defined protocol. His is a world of dinner settings and polished doorknobs, a place where servants provide perfect support without ever being noticed.

To him, this life represents an absolute good: attending to the needs of a man he is convinced can make great changes in the world, and whom he trusts implicitly in all ethical matters. Lord Darlington is a gentleman, and as a gentleman possesses an unerring moral compass. He felt dreadful about the agony of Versailles after all: the economic hobbling of a foe who needed a hand up as badly as the rest of Europe. And look! That same foe just put someone new in charge, someone who’s really turning it around for them! Doesn’t it make sense to help them get back on their feet the way we should have in 1919? Isn’t it better for everyone to help them meet their goals so we can avoid another dreadful war? We all want peace, the Germans most of all. So what’s the big deal if they just want to get rid of all their J-

Oh dear.

Thus does Darlington help enable the greatest evil of the 20th Century – to the point of dismissing a pair of Jewish refugees on his staff to an unknown and likely ghastly fate – without ever quite realizing it. But Darlington doesn’t concern The Remains of the Day so much as Stevens does. Darlington makes his bed and must lie in it. We never see his final fate and we don’t need to (it apparently comes with a steaming plate of public disgrace). But Stevens has a choice. He sees what unfolds in his master’s home – the German visitors, the “conferences” that take unmistakably ugly tones, even lord Darlington’s nephew Reginald (Hugh Grant) horrified by what his uncle is becoming and dressing Stevens down for ignoring it –  and all of it passes like water off of his back. It’s not his place, he tells himself. He has tidying to attend to. He should never speak up. It has nothing to do with him.

Naturally, Stevens ignores more than the political implications of his master’s affairs. His housekeeper Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson) is desperately in love with him, for starters, and his own father (Peter Vaughn) returns to the household with diminished capacities… eventually dying while Stevens serves guests downstairs. Neither deters him from his duties, no matter how dearly his heart wishes otherwise. His emotional constipation remains total, and if he can’t listen to the concerns of his heart, how can he be expected to take a stand on principle?

The tragedy is self-explanatory, and while he can successfully dodge the worst of it, it means renouncing the very loyalties he built his life around. We see him after the war, hoping vainly to recapture the love he let slip away and managing the delicate question of that “Nazi” he used to work for as deftly as he once cleared the table. He represses the pain as he represses every genuine emotion he ever felt, clinging to his duties as a shield against it.

It grants him only cold comfort at best: his world of regimented class structure and everything in its place vanishes after the war. He’s left in his empty hall serving a new American master (Christopher Reeve in one of his best performances) with little need for pomp and circumstance. Even here, with a kind man keeping him on in the only life he’s known, he earns a painful reminder of his failings: Reeve’s Jack Lewis was once a Congressman, arguing strenuously against collaborating with the Germans during one of Lord Darlington’s diplomatic get-togethers.

That’s not the only ghost of Christmas past haunting him. Stevens lives surrounded by people who see Lord Darlington’s lapses: from Kenton to Lewis to Reginald to Kenton’s rival suitor (Tim Pigott-Smith) who had the decency to quit his butler’s job at another home when his master got a little too goose-steppy for comfort. All of them tell Stevens – in every way imaginable – that Darlington is on the road to damnation. All of them watch while he brushes them aside and keeps dusting the library. Only in the end, when they’re gone and his life’s work sits in shabby decline, does he understand that ignoring his choices constitutes a choice all its own

The irony, of course, is that he feels the pain of this wasted life as it happens. He simply can’t stir himself to do anything about it. He echoes the slow, languid pace of our current political junta: fully aware that the President 1) is a monstrous human being; 2) lacks the basic fitness for the job; and 3) finds new ways to come apart at the seams almost every day. They know how badly it stinks, but they also know they can’t back out of it: squirming like live bait at each new self-inflicted wound and finally beginning to realize that they can’t get off this trolley no matter where it goes.

You make choices. They seem like good choices. But that nagging little voice tells you otherwise and you ignore it at your peril. Ethics only matter when it’s inconvenient to adhere to them, and the things you stand by are the things that define you. No mulligans allowed. Stevens learned that lesson too late… though he might take solace in the fact that he’s clearly not alone.

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