The remains of the day is my favorite film, the one that made me discover and appreciate Emma’s skills.
The film tells the story of Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), a loyal butler who has dedicated the whole life to his employer, Lord Darlington, an old misguided gentleman who sympathizes with the Nazis. Stevens never questions his lord but remains faithful to him.
Stevens is emotionally blocked, dignity is the only word in his vocabulary and he blindly trusts his master. There is no room for feelings in his life, only work counts for him.
Something changes with the hire of a new housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), whose references satisfy Mr Stevens’ high expectations, he defines her “a young woman with excellent references, very pleasant demeanor, who appears to be very able”. She soon falls in love with him, makes him waver but not enough to declare his love. He certainly develops an affection towards her but his emotional detachment keeps the relation from growing.
The body language is essential to understand the attitude of the characters, Miss Kenton is always connected with other people, she seeks physical contact while Mr Stevens avoids it. He is aloof and unemotional most of the time and he only relaxes when he is alone in his private room, smoking cigars, drinking whiskey and listening to old records.
As time passes they work well together and their relationship becomes friendly but they don’t have the courage to confess their love, even if sometimes their friendship looks like a romance. Stevens often hesitates but never yelds even when Miss Kenton comes forward and tries to draw closer to him.
Whenever the two are in the same room, there is always a hurdle that stands in their possible proximity. The more used prop in this film, to separate phisically Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton is the desk in Stevens’ private room. He always hides behind the desk when he feels in danger, and the threat, for him, is the physical closeness of the housekeeper and the desk metaphorically represents the insurmountable wall for miss Kenton.
He is only able to look at her through a barrier, for instance there’s a scene in the movie where Mr Stevens watches her through the door’s keyhole. Another scene shows Mr Stevens secretly spying her through the windows while she is leaving Darlington Hall by bicycle. This explains how is he emotionally disconnected.
She, on the contrary, feels comfortable with him and seeks his company, brings him flowers, she often enters his room and jokes with him.
There’s a moment (their only) in which they are really closer, it’s the climax of the movie but something comes up and they start to pull away ruthlessly and forever.
The most compelling scene of the movie opens with Miss Kenton who enters Mr Stevens’ room bringing in flowers while he is dozing with a book in his hands. He wakes up and she asks him what is he reading. He feels exposed and won’t tell her what sort of book he’s reading but she becomes pushy and keeps on chasing him with questions about the content of the book. “Is it racy?” She says with a suggestive smile on her face and she looks very excited by this. She stares at him funny and he hurries behind the desk alarmed by her gumption but this time she doesn’t stop, she is bold as never before, maybe she thinks this is the right time to declare each other.
She steps around the desk and joins him. Stevens is in the corner, completely helpless while she tries to gently tear the book from his hands. It’s a great emotional scene, he is torn between the will to touch Miss Kenton’s hair and the fear of their proximity and the fall of every barrier.
James Ivory’s direction is spectacular and makes this scene even more intense thanks to the play of lights and shadows that create an intimate atmosphere and arouse deep emotions.
Stevens is still as petrified but he can’t hide the liveliness of his eyes that peer into Miss Kenton’s face trying to fix eternally in his memory the beauty of her face and the uniqueness of that once-in-a-lifetime moment for him.
I think this is the most beautiful and romantic scene in the history of cinema. There are neither kisses nor hugs but their emotions are burning and the mutual desire is about to explode, she ogles with him looking forward to that kiss that will never come. He wants her and yet he stands still and so the mood abruptly breaks.
Stevens is aware of her feelings but is not able to reciprocate. Only during their final rendez-vous Stevens reaches awareness of wasted time and long last sees Miss Kenton in a romantic light but it’s too late because she has married another man to spite him.
This is the story of lost opportunities, unlived love, unspoken words, regret, despair, hidden and never confessed deep longing.
A must see film even if too heartbreaking.
Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins at their best, with their furtive glances, superb control of the nuances, restrained emotions, they are really a wonder to behold.