The Remains of the Day  and The Price of Conscientiousness
Of all the perils of loving and being loved, there’s none more terrifying, more consequential, more elementary than telling what you feel. The heart’s catharsis and the mind’s unburdening; to begin is inarguably the most momentous, mustering the courage to disclose those desires, baring your soul to the one you love with the expectations they too feel the same. Call it bravery or sheer foolishness, but to confess one’s affection to another is an initiation guided by the blinding optimism of love. It’s all too daunting yet it’s, perhaps, the only step forward. Such is this simple task of an innocent, intimate confession; to speak finite words of an infinite emotion. Yet, it’s a step encompassed by the fulfilment of something bigger.
Before reveling in the highs and surviving the lows of life more idealized than realized, before the sacrifices and endless compromises, before changing with someone, growing with someone—together and apart—to be open to the incalculable futures love promises begins with being vulnerable. It’s a common fear to appear exposed. For speaking the language that love burdens is to present an image pure, sans any elaborate performance, rid of the facades of self-importance and restraint—an image bravely embracing both the prospects and unpredictability of loving and being loved. But something holds back. Anxiety, bias, obligations, hidden agendas, the ever-looming fear of rejection and betrayal and pain; the act of being vulnerable expends an enormous amount of energy.
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Characters twisted by these agonizing feelings have often graced cinema. The stoic, prideful and gentlemanly sentiments of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to the near suffocating enigma of Mr Chow Mo-Wan in In The Mood For Love to name a few; men, mysterious and uptight, elegantly tortured by a distinct emotional repression, whose true intentions are cloaked in a seemingly impenetrable fog of invulnerability. Emotions are the proverbial Iron Maiden to their beguiling sternness, their defensive albeit composed image. They lack the courage to be vulnerable however, their reasons differ. For Mr. Darcy, it’s a mix of chivalric intent and a result of his social upbringing and Mr. Chow is restrained by a moral obligation of a personal, poetic nature. In the end, the former is redeemed when he comes to terms with his tardiness and unsheathes his emotions while the latter whispers secrets of an unfulfilled romance into a hole in a temple, unheard to any living soul and untouched forever. One happy, the other doomed.
But what of a scenario where vulnerability is not hidden or held back rather, repressed because it’s taught to be a weakness and inessential to their profession—a consequence of one’s conscientiousness, that is seen as detrimental to the dignity of a professional? Prevented from exhibiting desires and affection, not because of fear and embarrassment but because it’s seen as an inconvenience to the manicured semblance one has put so much effort into building? What if invulnerability is a responsibility and vulnerability, a breach of professionalism?
James Ivory captures a distinct emotional hostility and its damaging consequences in this mesmerizing historical film. The Remains of The Day is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s eponymous, Booker Prize-winning novel which chronicles the life of an English butler and his servitude at a stately home in the years during and after World War 2. Ivory crafts a quietly affecting tale on the pains of unrequited love and the lingering regret it effuses so potently in memory with unflinching honesty. It’s scope is both large and individual, partly examining the political turmoil of an ideologically fractured era as seen through the eyes of a dignified, soft-spoken butler and his tryst with love with the arrival of a spirited housekeeper. The end result is—to put it simply—absolutely heart-breaking. It ticks all the requirements of a basic historical film; magical, slow, incredibly British, smooth on the eyes with its decadent sets and English scenery, doling out emotional gut-punches with silent ease and, finishing off with an ending that’ll leave you in pieces. But apart from its glamour, Ivory translates Ishiguro’s material into an effective character study of a man who’s sacrificed every ounce of his life into a job he executes with excellence. But realizes, far too late, he has nothing to give, for anything and for anyone except his occupation.
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The year is 1958. The Darlington House in Oxfordshire, with its sprawling lawns and striking scenery, was held for a good part of 2 centuries by the Earl of Darlington. But after the end of World War 2, news broke out that the Earl was a Nazi sympathizer. He lived with his reputation tainted until he died of a ‘broken heart’, leaving his mansion idle, and, eventually, sold in an auction. Mr Stevens (played by a formidable Anthony Hopkins) the ageing butler of the stately home who’d been working for more than 30 years, finds his duties transferred to serving Darlington Hall’s new occupant. The staff of a few maids and footmen have proved itself insufficient to manage the expansive mansion, compounded by the fact that Stevens’ is not operating at the same level as he did in the glory days because of his age. He finds himself in quite a pickle because it’s become increasingly difficult to find any willing and suitable candidates. Considering a break is long due, Mr Stevens’ gets the idea to go on a journey across Britain to visit Miss Kenton (played by a marvelous Emma Thompson), a previous housekeeper of Darlington Hall. Miss Kenton has kept in touch with Mr. Stevens through letters and expressed the nostalgia of her time working there. Therefore, Mr. Stevens plans out a long motor-trip to the West Country for two purposes; relishing his time exploring the English countryside and meeting Miss Kenton and convincing her to come back and work at Darlington Hall. As he goes on the journey, we’re treated to glimpses of Mr Stevens operating at the height of his career in the 1930s, managing internationally important conferences and his blossoming relationship with Miss Kenton that turns from a simple rivalry to passionate affection towards each other.
To say I was destroyed by this film is an understatement. The Remains of the Day is one among the many gems of the Merchant-Ivory filmography. Produced, directed and/or written by the collaborative efforts of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, what was initially the name of their production house now denotes the genre of films they used to produce; exquisite period dramas and swooning romances, set primarily in the early 20th century, stacked with an ensemble cast who, very often than ever, portray characters of the bourgeoisie rebelling against the norms of a restrictive society.
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My experience with the Merchant-Ivory films was positive but there was a disconnect that bugged me. As well-intentioned as the characters were, I couldn’t relate a great extent to their struggles; rich, white folk from a different century and their first-world problems aren’t ones I can fully empathize with. Naturally, I was hesitant going into The Remains of the Day, expecting—at the very least—a visually pleasing drama. But as soon as it ended, I was taken aback, almost overwhelmed. Ivory crafts an intricately woven tale of love, desire, innocence, duty and honor, whose strength lies in the harmony of its dual narrative; a nuanced and subtly devastating love story of rule-bound butler and dissection into the political climate of the pre-WW2 era complimenting each other to give, arguably, one of the greatest unrequited romances of all time.
The purpose of this essay is to probe into the major theme of the film: conscientiousness and its repercussions, morally and individually. The cost of achieving such an honor to one’s profession, although appreciated by one’s employer, has its darker sides and The Remains of The Day lays its pitfalls elegantly. While I will delve deep into events of the film, I will also be touching upon the original source material and see how the film translates it well.
“We’re all butlers in a way, and an old English butler — to a greater or lesser extent — because we fear the realm of the emotions,” said author Kazuo Ishiguro in an interview at TIFF. We must understand how the character of the butler plays into the themes of the film. Firstly, the butler is seen as a universal image of the British institution. Their executive attire, their articulate manner of speech, their gracefully stiff movements, the poise, patience and skill for managing mansions the size of museums, the fastidiousness, the devotion, the omnipresence — butlers possess a profuse sense of professionalism that isn’t easy to emulate and hence may come off as robotic and distant; their invulnerability is essential for their job. Secondly, the butler is a stereotypical image anyone can easily recognize. Whether it be for the Queen of England or for a brooding billionaire who turns into a bat vigilante by night, one can easily identify what it is that a butler does; objectively seen as the epitome of courtesy and gentlemanliness, a servant whose life is of their employer yet paradoxically doesn’t interfere a bit into them. This dual meaning serves metaphorically and politically.
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Ishiguro wrote this to explore the idea of the ‘failure or fear of emotion’. The butler is the perfect metaphor for invulnerability. Unlike any other profession, their stoic and apathetic nature is a justification to become the absolute best. A butler who shows emotions feels misaligned, like a betrayer to his service. Yet, we forget that he too is a human, so this dilemma of invulnerability entangles itself elegantly. The political subtext lies in how they’re perceived on a grand scale. What a butler or an employee is to their employers is equivalent to what citizens of a country are to their heads of states; a distinct disconnect is evident in them. Butlers contribute to their employer in the form of their service hoping it is for a good cause. The butler never questions it nor sees the employer in action — the affairs are held behind closed doors — because they assume he or she is one of the many great folks who controls the happenings of the world. Similarly, in democracies and in one’s professional lives, we contribute our work to our superiors in the hopes it’ll give great benefit to both parties. We never meddle with their processes nor interfere because we put our faith in them and whatever they do is always the best. There is some truth to Ishiguro’s statement: human beings can be seen as butlers metaphorically and morally. And, even to a certain degree, emotionally because there’s a part of us that is afraid of this ‘realm of emotions’, which is the film’s prime focus.
Great stories are hinged on their characters. And what makes a great character are their flaws or more precisely, a fatal flaw; fundamental in defining their uniqueness. It could be an obsession, an unshakeable conviction, a secret or an ideology. Mr. Stevens is a magnificently layered character whose flaw is in accordance with his profession: dignity. Both in the novel and the film, explored in detail in the former, Mr. Stevens believes what distinguishes a ‘great’ butler from a competent one is their conviction towards dignity. A great butler is one who doesn’t abandon their professional ability at any cost and strives wholly towards their employer’s life, especially without any moral compromises. He derives his conscientiousness from this philosophy. Such an obsession towards dignity has proven detrimental to the many dimensions of his life yet, he’s either oblivious of it or self-aware but never takes responsibility for it.
Mr. Stevens is a gentleman. Perhaps too much of a gentleman. Emotions are scarcely exhibited by him. There is no real difference between anger, sadness, boredom, tiredness or even grief in him. He’s always conscious of his duty towards Lord Darlington so seldom does he indulge in anything recreational. And what’s painful about this emotional repression is that he is self-aware of it. One could even make the suggestion that he suffers from a mental disorder, his manners similar to someone with schizoid personality issues. But he’s simply functioning solely on his moral and professional convictions. His self-control is both his greatest strength and glaring weakness. Love is a nuisance, opinions and politics nowhere in the purview of his work and rules dictate his actions. He doesn’t initiate a romantic connection with Miss Kenton nor reciprocate feelings because of his lack of real-world experience beyond his job. He can comprehend, at times, Miss Kenton’s advances but his dedication towards his profession always overcomes his craving for intimacy. The nostalgia Miss Kenton writes in her letters is possibly interpreted by Mr Stevens as her desire to come back and work at Darlington Hall for it is the only place he can be close to her. Nearly 2 decades have passed and his love for her is still suppressed by his overreliance on dignity, so he resorts to a deceptive request.
He’s very poor at small talk, something he literally trains himself in mechanically. A major part of the humor is derived from this, like Mr. Stevens attempting his best to give the ‘the birds and the bees’ talk to the godson of Lord Darlington. On his road trip as well, he bumbles a lot with the locals he encounters with. He’s never overburdening to his hosts, introverted, always keeps to himself and talks with immense politeness. We don’t know the real Mr. Stevens; only the butler. His professional attire is his skin, his diplomacy integrated into his personality and rarely does he ever see anything beyond what is good for him and not his role as a butler. And it’s only when the damage is done and he introspects does he realize the magnitude of his conscientiousness. Anthony Hopkins’ performance has an unbelievable amount of restraint to it. Hidden feelings reveal themselves through the most minuscule, most trivial of actions; the twitch of an eye, the lift of an eyebrow, a chuckle, a stammer, a blank stare out into the distance. In a character this stern and disciplined, Hopkins brings a profound depth through his magical acting.
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There are also characters that provide perspectives to such dignity. The first is Mr. Stevens’ father, William Stevens, an equally, if not, greater butler than Mr. Stevens. He’d been working with his previous employer Mr. Silvers but was let off after his demise. Mr. Stevens vouch for his father’s ability and so Lord Darlington took him in. Mr. William Stevens is an absolute, complete and all-rounded embodiment of dignity. He literally serves his job more than his health and his family and teaches his son not warmth and hospitality rather the desired traits of a butler. Mr. Stevens is his employer so the interactions are strictly formal. He’s frail but that doesn’t falter his capacity to execute his duties. His old age brings many mistakes that breach the code of the butler; he is forgetful, slow, and even clumsy to the point where he trips while carrying a tray of tea in front of Lord Darlington. But that doesn’t budge him. He sees himself always, and at all times, as a butler. When he becomes fatally ill during a conference at the mansion, on his deathbed, he confesses to Mr. Stevens “I have no love for your mother” It’s interesting to note that this line is not present in the novel but added by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. For such a pivotal scene, its inclusion is intriguing. This is to reinforce this unwavering passion for dignity. Mr. Stevens’ father is his own fate; working to old age always under an employer, emotionally distant to people and in constant self-denial. And sadly, he does achieve it. It is ironic that he died in his place of employment; the only world he knows of. Mr. Stevens behavior is absolutely shocking here. Not a sliver of grief is exhibited because he’s preoccupied with giving a good service to the conference underway at the mansion. It’s unsettling to say the least.
There’s a brief romantic subplot where a housemaid, Lizzie, and under butler, Charles, resign from their roles in Darlington Hall so they can get married. This shows us the few who rebel against the rigorous methods of achieving dignity. Both Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens frown upon workplace romance because it always brings disaster. This further justifies love as an inconvenience to one’s dignity and it perpetuates that virtue of invulnerability that is clearly destroying anyone following it. Moreover, Mr. Stevens doesn’t want to fail his employer by accepting Miss Kenton. The butler code is encoded in him. But Miss Kenton is clearly more headstrong. She tries her best to help him break that; their evening cocoa, strolls in the park and the occasional teasing. But it doesn’t budge Mr. Stevens, She even marries Mr. Benn, a guest at Darlington Hall, so as to ‘provoke’ Mr. Stevens into admitting he has feelings for her but it doesn’t work. He knows first-hand the catastrophe that will ensue if he leaves. His employees leaving cause great disorder, so he cannot imagine the sheer magnitude of a great butler like him suddenly giving up on his duties. It’s infuriating to watch a gawking fool like Mr. Stevens be so blind to the opportunity of love, but he has his dignity to take care of and it’s what controls him.
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The character of Lord Darlington touches on the morally abhorrent actions allowed by Mr. Stevens’ idea of dignity. Lord Darlington is not an evil man, he’s the typical naïve elite who believes it is up to him to change the world. This is characteristic of British capitalists and royals of the time; men and women gripped with delusions of influence, they hold with them immense power to sway conflicts because of their position in society and, decisions are made by their biases. He sympathized with the struggles of the people in the Weimar Republic after World War 1, one of whom was a dear friend of his who killed himself because of the sordid conditions. The rise of the Nazi Party was lauded by Lord Darlington for he saw it as a miracle to reunite a nation treated unfairly by the Versailles Treaty, and bring upon the age of economic prosperity. He was then subsequently brainwashed into believing the tenets of the Nazi party and started supporting them. The global conference he holds is to garner support for the Nazi Party by bringing in prominent European gentlemen and to talk of ways on how to revise the treaty. He never understood the real agenda of the Nazis, who used him to further their expansion in Britain. This will eventually snowball into World War 2, leaving Lord Darlington broken and disillusioned. Mr. Stevens speaks highly of him at all times, stating that his innocence and kindness was exploited by them and that he was always a good man. But Mr. Stevens could have saved him and didn’t.
“A man cannot call himself well-contented until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer. This assumes that one’s employer is a superior person, not only in rank and wealth, but in moral stature” This here is Mr. Stevens’ philosophy at its truest sense. He’s the villain here, implicit to Lord Darlington’s ‘moral stature’. A tender period like this saw the clash between personal beliefs and nationalistic convictions and this is mirrored in Mr. Stevens’ inner struggle. When touring the villages of the countryside, Mr. Stevens always evades the question of his place of employment when he is asked. Mr. Stevens’ moral compass is broken or, more precisely, non-existent because he always follows the word of his employer. He might as well have prevented Lord Darlington’s brainwashing and subsequent death if he stepped in. He could have stood up against him and questioned him, when those two maids were dismissed on the grounds they were Jews. He could have stopped lying and allowed Lord Darlington’s journalist godson to let him in their conference and expose it to the world. But he didn’t dare shed his image as a butler, as he’s a classic example of class conditioning. He is simply in service to please Lord Darlington at all costs. There must be a revision made to Mr. Stevens’ idea of dignity. True dignity is in accordance with one’s own beliefs and not with others. A dignified man stands up for himself, not blindly following tradition.
“I’d be lost without her ” Mr. Stevens says, referring to Miss Kenton — one of the few human dialogues of his is also the most heart-breaking. It’s a cunningly structured remark; lost both emotionally and professionally because Miss Kenton is his perfect match in both realms. But his emotional repression inhibits him from admitting it. Apart from all the political happenings, it always comes back to this — the dynamics between Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton. They bicker and fight over things in the house, but they always come together in the evening, discussing the day’s events over a cup of cocoa. This is a meeting Mr Stevens always looks forward to for he’s finally with Miss Kenton and vice versa. Their love is pure but it’s Mr. Stevens who forcefully taints it. It’s the overwhelming feeling of self-denial that kills him slowly. When he sees a crestfallen Miss Kenton, weeping with frustration at Mr. Stevens’ coldness towards her advances, one would naturally expect Mr. Stevens to shed his invulnerability and hold her with warmth. Yet, he maintains his decorum and reminds her to sweep some dust off the alcove in the breakfast room and simply leaves. It’s a brutal scene. And it exemplifies Mr Stevens’ pitying flaw. Little does he know it would destroy him later on in his life.
As is typical with doomed romances, the ending is not bleak rather truthful. Miss Kenton marries Mr. Benn who she eventually divorces. Years pass, and the love between Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton hasn’t waned. Their meeting is their last shot at reconciliation: Miss Kenton hoping he confesses his love for her and Mr. Stevens hoping she’ll accept the housekeeper position so he’ll be with her. But Miss Kenton refuses, under the pretext of taking care of her grandchild. This realization crushes Mr. Stevens. But even then, he doesn’t admit he loves her. Miss Kenton hopes he will say something but it’s all in vain. A teary-eyed and sorrowful goodbye is exchanged and every attempt at love ceases to exist. The film ends on a note of despair; Mr. Stevens is still stuck in the mansion, dwelling of a time and life long gone, while the world moves forth without him.
At its core, The Remains of The Day comes back to the simple problem of emotion, of the inability to convey those few words that can help romance to take place. That is Mr. Stevens’ struggle utterly, truly simplified. But his invulnerability, as a result of his dignity, denies him of this simple human act.
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The book scene bares the soul of Mr. Stevens unforgivingly. As he reads a book in his office in the dark, Miss Kenton enters and playfully asks him what he is reading. Mr. Stevens is evasive and constantly, albeit politely, begging her to stop it for this is the only time he’s free. But Miss Kenton’s persistence forces him to stand up and corner himself in the wall: the tension mounts. Miss Kenton asks if it’s a racy book. “Or are you protecting me?” she asks again coyly, “Would I be shocked? Would it ruin my character” Face to face, the music swelters, their hearts in their mouths. In this interstice of time, their undisclosed passion flourishes. Mr. Stevens pulls the book closer to him so she’s forced to be closer to his face. The book, like his heart, is clutched with a deathly grip; Miss Kenton struggles to pry it from his dignified hands. He stares at her longingly, with so much to say but too much at stake to say it. She gets the book and isn’t overly surprised; it’s just a sentimental love story. Mr. Stevens, his composure totally lost, regains his senses and says it’s only to improve his vocabulary. And ends that interaction, there and then. It’s a scene that encapsulates his entire struggle painfully; so achingly close but so treacherously far.
The Remains of the Day is a visceral film; of a violence afflicted offscreen, of a torment felt in the unforeseen recollections of memory that rushes in without any warning. It is the regret of the unlived life: everything that could, would and should, wasted. Those dreams and unfulfilled desires, those ecstatic futures, the multitude of euphoric possibilities, all gone because we thought more with our mind than with our heart. Such is the violence of the emotional realm; abstract, personal and unrelentingly present, not in a physical act rather on a scale closer to our mind. As time passes, it uncovers itself in quietly damaging ways. It comes out in the nostalgia that reverberates in things that once looked mundane and ordinary. It interrupts jaggedly between thoughts, when reminiscing on those missed opportunities, misjudged anxieties and acts of selfishness; a tantalizing future rejected for some menial reason. It’s a pain that cannot be reasoned, cannot be cured and cannot be shared. All one can do is accept whatever is lost and move on. There is no act that requires more courage than moving on. But Mr. Stevens still dreams of that ideal life.
It’s most evident in the climax when Mr. Stevens lets out a trapped pigeon from the drawing room through the window. Mr. Stevens had every opportunity to live a happy life, a future of love and romance with Miss Kenton. But he rejected it because love merely reduced itself as a distraction to his duty. In his relentless pursuit for perfection, he abandoned the many human parts of himself. He looks up at the sky and lets that crushing realization wash over him, the bird soaring with its natural freedom while he stands in servitude, till death, in Darlington Hall. He did everything for his job and now he bears the expense.
That is the ultimate sacrifice: not just vulnerability but the freedom to live freely, love unboundedly and make someone feel important in this world. There is no going back, unfortunately. Because, in the end, the price of conscientiousness is the fruits of life itself.