Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

In Orderly Life, Pride Runs Amok: A Review of “The Remains of Daylight” (Sept – Dec 1994)

Filed under: — @ 4:50 pm and

by Deborah Gohrke
September – December, 1994

In the precise and orderly existence of a proper English butler, the movie The Remains of the Day, allows us to witness the high price paid by a life driven by pride. This Merchant/Ivory production is an exceedingly rich, expertly woven tapestry, a banquet, a feast of extraordinary delicacy and generous proportions. The music is haunting, the cinematography lovely, the acting mesmerizing, and the development of the story impeccable. But, be cautioned, it is not for everyone. If your idea of a great movie experience is Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger, if you found no redeeming value in other Merchant/Ivory productions, such as A Room with a View and Howard’s End, and if you have never seen anything worthwhile on public television, this movie’s not for you.

After forcing my friend, Julie, to see this movie with me, I anxiously waited to hear her reaction. She smiled patiently and confided, “I gave up seeing thought-provoking movies a long time ago and I’ve been much happier. I would rather have seen Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.”

Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is the butler for Lord Darlington, in Oxfordshire, England, in the 1930s. We are allowed into his life to witness the painful sacrifices and choices he makes in the name of “dignity.” We watch how he copes with the moral dilemma of the rise of Nazi Germany and the Politics of Appeasement his employer promotes. We see him pass up his opportunity for love and emotional fulfillment. We are privy to the heady pride, posturing, and privilege of the Lords and Ladies, Dukes and Duchesses, The Upper Class, of England. We watch the events surrounding the man and his delusions of greatness as he sacrifices his personal relationships and prostrates himself to an ideal. It is a fascinating portrayal of blind loyalty to a class system.

It is about sin. Not adultery, murder, drug addiction or perversion. But pride. Pride, in this case, in the paradoxical role of service. Add to pride, moral and emotional cowardice. Greatly deceptive sins masquerade here as dignity and nobility. Mr. Stevens’ pride, and the resulting self-deception and repression, are so transparent that what is normally a difficult characteristic to see, is painfully illuminated. Traces of which are common in many religions and individuals, including myself. Like Stevens, we often strive for perfection in matters that are not worthy of the effort, while neglecting more important things, hoping to achieve importance, acceptance, appreciation, due to flawless performance. It’s a cruel illusion, one, that we can consistently achieve flawless performance and two, that it will give our lives meaning. If acceptance and love can be won by competence, what happens on our day off? How much residual value can be stored from competent performance or your past achievements? What happens as we grow old, or get sick, and our performance begins to diminish? A question Mr. Stevens gets to face in the form of his own father.

In many ways, Stevens’ professional zeal is not unlike religious legalism. A lot of time and energy are spent on little things, little questions. Stevens never asks the big questions until it’s too late. What is really important? What is life about? He strains out a gnat and swallows a camel. He is so obsessed with forks and spoons he misses the implications of the International Conference his employer holds with the Nazis. His pride and insecurity drive a rigid adherence to his philosophy—a carefully constructed delusion of purpose, dignity, and nobility. He tells a visiting butler, “In my philosophy man cannot call himself truly contented until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer. Of course, this assumes that one’s employer is a superior person, not only in rank or wealth, but in moral stature.” When the visiting butler observes he’s not so sure about the moral stature of Mr. Stevens’ Nazi collaborating employer, and asks if Stevens is not troubled by what he hears, Stevens absolves himself: “I hear nothing. To listen to the gentleman’s conversations would distract me from my work.”

Life is messy. In Stevens’ carefully constructed world, it’s precise. Neat and tidy with few surprises, few mistakes. The proper location of a vase, the straight appearance of a picture frame, the dust broom in the closet when not in use, take on the utmost importance. The adherence to order becomes the end in itself, becomes “dignity,” not real dignity, but the appearance of dignity. What matters is to adhere to the appearance of greatness, nobility, dignity—without questioning what true greatness, nobility, or dignity really are.

It is a brutal movie. Yet, not a drop of blood is shed. It contains some of the most debilitating and cruel scenes ever filmed. Yet, there is no violence. Instead, devastating blows are delivered by behavior and comments that ignore emotional needs and vulnerability. One of the cruelest lines in the movie is delivered by Mr. Stevens to Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), the housekeeper, in which he says, “I noticed some dust at the top of the stairs and knew you would want me to bring it to your attention.” I hope you will want to see the movie just to discover how this could possibly be so cruel. It is.

Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton engage in a war of pride. A challenge is laid down early in their relationship, a gauntlet of professional one-upmanship. These two are only able to connect in their mutual elevation of competence as an end in itself. That becomes a mask for emotional cowardice. It takes courage to be open and vulnerable.

It takes courage to love. And as we find out, if you wait too long to find courage, you may never find it.

It is an amazingly well-paced movie. But not in an American way. There are no fist fights, huge explosions, or high-speed car chases. Carefully calculated everyday behavior and extreme emotional suppression are the “action.” The everyday routine and the evenness of the pace almost make you feel like you are walking in Mr. Stevens’ carefully polished shoes. A flicker of an eye, or the almost imperceptible twitch at the corner of Stevens’ mouth become climactic.

It is an exceedingly sad movie. I wonder why I care so much for poor old Mr. Stevens. I suspect it is because I identify with his obsessive attention to performance, and the corresponding emptiness and disappointment that result. I have been like him on many occasions and know many people like him. Perfectionists, workaholics, religious legalists, the self-righteous with the “cause celebre” who end up with the opposite of what they sought. He is deluded. He has lived his life for a false ideal. Yet, don’t we admire people of conviction, self-control, and discipline? Don’t we admire a job well done, no matter how small: And rightly so. What is missing in Stevens, and often in us, is a sense of proportion, a balance. It is like the balance between faith and works… or grace and works. We readily concede we are saved by grace, yet it must be accompanied by faithful behavior. We can do nothing on our own, yet, God expects us to use and multiply the talents he gives us. In Stevens’ case, there is nothing wrong with perfectly polished knives and forks…or the complicated challenge of running a grand castle flawlessly.

Provided minutiae do not supersede more important matters. Like 1 Corinthians 13. We may excel at the small details and miss the most important commandment in the entire Bible—to love—first God and then each other. Sadly, Stevens’ supreme effort at attending to the details, and, most of all, the pride he embraces in the attendance to those details, cause him to miss love. He vaguely begins to question toward the end of his life, when circumstances, the fact of Lord Darlington’s disgrace as a Nazi sympathizer, the opportunity to retrieve Miss Kenton back to Darlington Hall, and the lack of appreciation for English propriety in his new American employer, force change upon him. Yet, as he tries to adjust, the magnitude of his past mistakes have reaped life-long consequences.

In a poignant scene with Miss Kenton, reunited after 20 years, they are sitting on a public dock towards the end of the day.

Miss Kenton says, “There are times I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.”

“Well, yes, I’m sure we all have these thoughts from time to time,” Mr. Stevens replies.

The lights of the dock come on and a crowd standing round cheers. Stevens reflects curiously, “I wonder why they do that…cheer?”

Miss Kenton wistfully observes, “Some say evening is the best part of the day, the part they look forward to.”

What do you do with what’s left of the day when you begin to suspect you may have spent your best energy—the daylight hours—for naught? The sun is setting. Soon the day will be over and you will have to conclude it was a good day—well spent—or perhaps a wasted day, in spite of your best or most noble intentions. Would that we all live so as to enjoy the remains of the day.

Deborah Gohrke

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