Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Movie Review - The Remains of the Day

Something a little different!

The Remains of the Day  1993
Anthony Hopkins; Emma Thompson; Christopher Reeve; Hugh Grant
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards

Period: Between present – 1950’s – and past – 1930’s pre WW2.

Within a couple of weeks of starting my first job in the UK after being overseas for - well, since I was 10years old! - my wonderful colleagues bought me a very helpful birthday present - Watching the English by Kate Fox; very thoughtful of them!  It’s “An absolutely brilliant examination of English culture and how foreigners take as complete mystery the things we take for granted.” (Jennifer Saunders, The Times, review on www.amazon.co.uk).

We had already experienced many of the ‘cultural etiquette’ situations mentioned in the book, and were able to laugh at them instead of getting upset, and then try and understand other situations for when we did come across them!  I started noticing more closely the English people’s mannerisms and habits, both on the street around me, and in TV programmes – especially the ads!

A little while ago I watched ‘The Remains of the Day’, starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant & Christopher Reeve among others.  Having lived outside the UK for many years, my perception of British movies was that they were all dour and dreary, often about the war, colourless settings and sad, colourless lives.  For foreigners, ‘the English’ have a reputation for not showing their emotions, being reserved, keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’, and for carrying on despite any calamity that happens. Granted,  ‘the English’ have had their fair share of calamities with all the consequences: poverty, rationing, loss of home, possessions and loved ones. So maybe years of experience have created this ‘culture of strength.’(Although there is always the question of whether this is true strength of character and whether it is the right way to face things.)

Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is the head Butler at Darlington Hall during the 1930’s and running up to WW2.  He is the classic Butler – he does his job exceptionally well, he is polite, he does not give his opinion even when asked, he merely agrees with the master of the house or his guests. He is always available, even when guests arrive for a meeting at 1am, and he is uncomplaining. He never bad-mouths his master or the servants under his authority, he is always respectful, and knows how to fix anything. He is as much a gentleman as the Lord of the Manor! His ‘Englishness’, is just as ‘foreigners’ have come to understand from 18th & 19th century books and movies.  Mr Stevens employs his 75 year old father (Peter Vaughan) as Under Butler with many responsibilities clearly unsuitable for an ageing gentleman (even though he’d been ‘in service’ himself for over 50years). Unfortunately Mr Stevens senior dies in the servant’s quarters at a time when Darlington Hall is entertaining a number of guests, and as head Butler, Mr Stevens junior believes he is expected to be present at all times.  This was the saddest part of this story. Mr Stevens junior is called from his duties to his father’s bedside. He says little. He does little. He simply nods when told his father has passed away. He stands by his bedside and touches his hand lightly with his finger tips, he doesn’t hold his hand, he doesn’t cry, his face doesn’t change in any way whatsoever. After about a minute, he leaves the room saying something like, “I have work to do.” And he returns to the guests!!  It sounds impossible, and unbelievable, but I suspect there are may still be people in 21st century England who would do the same thing!

Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) is the housekeeper at Darlington Hall and she tries to be a little less formal (but is requested by Mr Stevens not to call the other servants by their first names!), and she tries to befriend Mr Stevens – OK so befriend is perhaps too much of a euphemism – she flirts with him! She has a bit more of a social life and eventually gets married and moves away from Darlington Hall.  We see Mr Stevens still serving post war in the 1950’s, but he harks back to previous times when Miss Kenton was walking the corridors!  He never showed his emotions to her then and there’s a hint that he regrets this!

He travels to ‘the west country’ to meet up with Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn.  She is clearly nervous and excited about meeting her ‘lost’ lover, but his face never changes. They walk, they sit on the pier. He invites her to return to Darlington Hall, but as she has just heard that her daughter is about to make her a grandmother, she turns down the offer. There’s a very, very slight hint of sadness on Mr Steven’s face, but he stays calm and merely accepts her decision with as few words as necessary. They part. She climbs on a bus and waves and cries. He lifts his hat in respect. There is no other emotion shown on his face. He does not smile or grimace. The muscles in his face do not move. He knows he’s lost her and maybe he didn’t even know how!

Yes it was one of the dour, dark, dreary movies, but this time I watched it with an understanding. This wasn’t just a movie. It’s the kind of thing that really happened, and, sadly, I think there are still small pockets of this kind of attitude to life in the 21st century across England!