September 30, 2010

Remains of the Day

September 28, 2010

A few weeks ago, my satellite provider gave me a wonderful gift—three free months of the Encore channels. That means I have temporary access to many of my favorite films made during the last decade or two. Merchant/Ivory’s 1993 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day falls into that category. In fact, I’d go so far as putting it on my list of top ten movies of all time.

Why? Because there’s not a bad scene in it.

“Remains of the Day” takes place during the late thirties right before World War II. England was trying to appease Germany and avoid another all-out conflict. At the forefront of this movement were wealthy, if naïve, landowners like Lord Darlington (played by James Fox) who believed the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I unfairly punished the Germans and led to the upheavals that paved the way for Hitler.

Serving as Lord Darlington’s butler is James Stephens (Anthony Hopkins), a man so focused on his duties that he’s nearly blind to the events that swirl around him. Into his hermetic world comes a new housekeeper, Sally Kenton (Emma Thompson), a whirlwind of emotion and sexuality that threatens to sweep him away.

The film moves back and forth between the late fifties, when Stephens is travelling to visit the unhappily married Sally in hopes of luring her back to Darlington—long after Lord Darlington has died in disgrace and the house has fallen into the hands of a sympathetic, retired American senator (Christopher Reeve)—, and those years at the dawn of the war.

The most amazing aspect of this movie, for me, is the portrait of an absolutely still character at its center. As a writer, I can tell you this is almost impossible to accomplish without putting readers or viewers to sleep.

Yet Stephens fascinates in his single-mindedness. The closest he can come to telling Miss Kenton that he loves her is to say how important she is to “this house,” meaning himself. She understands, of course, that he and Darlington Hall are one, that he will live out his days looking after it.

The scene I love the most sharply illustrates Stephens’ stillness. Miss Kenton regularly brings flowers into his room, even though he has told her that he wishes to leave “things as they are.”

One day, she happens upon him reading a book. When the scene begins, he’s sitting in a chair. Naturally, Miss Kenton wants to know the title, but he doesn’t want to show her what it is, because, as we discover, it’s simply a romance of the type he prefers in order to “perfect my use of the language.” He gets up, clutching the book to his chest. But she persists, finally backing him into a corner.

As they stand practically nose-to-nose, he acquiesces. While she’s studying the book, his hand rests on a mantel. He raises it slightly in her direction but can’t bring himself to touch her. He wants to, but if he does, his whole life will change; his loyalty to the house will be divided.

What a lovely gesture that is. Each time I see the movie, I marvel at how the quiet flick of fingers can tell the story of a life, something all good writers aim to do.

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