...Brilliantly Shadowy "The Remains of the Day"
So first things first, dear shadow lovers. If the equally shadow-loving I were writing the movie trailer for “The Remains of the Day” (1993), I’d say this: “Dusty flashback to the English countryside of the 1930s. A journey of damp second chances at the seaside in the 1950s. A love that never blossomed. A man that never lived. Seen through the keyhole and hourglass. At dusk, what shadowy mystery remains. Welcome, welcome, eager audience, to the magically murky world of ‘The Remains of the Day.’”
Yes, “The Remains of the Day” from 1993 is a juggernaut of shadowy mystery. Starring Anthony Hopkins as distinguished butler Mr. Stevens and Emma Thompson as spunky housekeeper Miss Kenton, this movie is like a finely tuned instrument being played by top musicians. Set in the pristine English countryside, on a wealthy estate called Darlington Hall, circa the late 1950s, this movie traces its butler’s motor-car journey to the “West Country.” There, the butler is to meet his beloved secret lady-love who left her housekeeper position at the estate back in the 1930s. Sunday afternoon drive, anyone? This drive, however, has some pretty potent emotional charge to it. What electricity. YOWZA.
Now most of the story takes place during this 1930s time-frame, and the audience is folded snugly into this pre-World War II setting and its stern yet cozy estate, chock full of fireside chats, cigars, and yes, SHADOWS. Also worth noting, the back-drop of World War II political intrigue taking place within ol’ Darlington Hall undoubtedly adds some extra SHADOWS. (Is the man of the house truly a Nazi sympathizer?)
But the top musicians of this movie aren’t just its actors. “The Remains of the Day” is a Merchant Ivory film. This successful Director/Producer duo collaborated on films like “Howards End” (1992) and “A Room With a View” (1985). In "The Remains of the Day," their ability to create high emotional suspense in arguably bland moments is masterful. (Refer to the “Chinaman” scene.) Then their weaving of quiet moments, with only facial expressions and music to cue the audience, creates for a truly BREATHTAKING movie experience. This movie has mastered the musical art of subtlety, and ironically, “isn’t afraid to show it.” Merchant Ivory are boldly unabashed in their restraint. WHOA. The result is a film that is dripping with repressed passion and regret. We’re talkin’ DRIPPING.
Mr. Stevens is an early-twentieth century man who is surprisingly likeable despite his over-the-top dutiful nature. A sign of the times? That’s why you forgive him. He just can’t get out of his own way and let love in. Sorry, Miss Kenton. And speaking of Miss Kenton, her goodness shines through like a brilliant ray of sunlight in this stuffy ol’ Darlington Hall, but she ultimately leaves her post and abandons her romantic feelings for Mr. Stevens. Why? Cue an awkward kiss on a bicycle on a rainy pub-filled night. BUT it’s with a man who’s clear in his intentions. BINGO. As the saying goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” The audience asks, “Oh WHY, Mr. Stevens, why couldn’t that be you? WHY couldn’t you squeak?”
But fast-forward twenty years later. Mr. Stevens is “older and wiser.” He needs a new housekeeper, and wants Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) back. She’s alluded by letter that she might be open to this, given her failing marriage. A big BINGO for Mr. Stevens. He now might get EVERYTHING he’s wished for, not only an excellent housekeeper, but a chance for love. At long last, he might find happiness.
This movie is at times painful, quite literally, to watch. The aching and longing felt by its characters jumps off the screen and into the audience. “The Remains of the Day” is riveting in its pain, but also in its possibility. These two characters are SO CLOSE at times to that coveted BREAKTHROUGH moment. Does it ever happen? Well, below would be my alternate movie trailer. It’s a bit longer than the first, but here goes. See if you can guess the answer:
“The neon lights of the rainy beach-boardwalk zap on. They’re intrusive, like pesky insect repellent lamps. Necessary. Helpful. But woefully out of place in the appropriate loneliness of the dank late afternoon gray. The juxtaposition of light and dark, bright and dim, is overwhelming. Later Mr. Stevens says to her, ‘You must try to do all you can to make these years happy ones for yourself and for your husband. We may never meet again, Mrs. Benn, that is why I am permitting myself to be so personal, if you will forgive me.” And then I’d heave a sigh, like a super-duper, mammoth sigh. That’s the brilliant “The Remains of the Day.” SIGH.