What defines an evening?
An ink blue canopy, yellow lights slowly flickering on…fatigued minds and bodies heading towards the comfort of home? Or is it simply what remains of the day, before the incessant ebb of time takes it into the arroyo of darkness and ultimate annihilation.
It means this and more, in what has been dubbed as one of best 100 books of the 20th century. ‘The Remains of the Day’ is authored by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Briton of Japanese origin, who won a Booker in 1989 for Best Fiction. It has been adapted by Merchant Ivory Productions into a hugely acclaimed eponymous film that won eight Oscar nominations, and will be soon performed as a stage musical in 2010.
Starring Anthony Hopkins, an actor twice Knighted, and Emma Thompson(both of whom got Oscar nominations for best actor/actress in lead roles), ‘The Remains of the Day’, is without a doubt, one of the best films I have ever watched.
It is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first attempt to explore a plot around British themes. Set just before the Second World War, it successfully and delicately interlinks a human life with the broader paradigms of the last vestiges of imperial England. Rarely are films made that focus on an individual so intimately, yet makes such a strong political statement.
The protagonist of the book Stevens James is a common man. He is a butler to Lord Darlington(played by James Fox), so that’s as common as it can get. Yet, in his own right, he is an evolved person. He exhibits those very characteristics that mark an ideal butler – a sense of loyalty, duty, commitment and devotion.
He works and lives by these values of the old English society. Being a perfectionist at his job is his most outstanding quality. Constant effort to improve is another worthy trait.
His immaculate approach enables him to pull off smoothly events as significant as trans-national conferences, over Europe’s approach on Germany, attended by high-profile dignitaries at Darlington Hall. Stevens is trained to look after Lord Darlington’s guests that include Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and organize top secret meetings.
Clearly, Lord Darlington is a man of immense standing. Though English, he is an advocate of what, in politics, came to be criticized as the ‘soft approach’ or policy of appeasement towards Germany. He is shown as a man in tussle with what England should typically do, and his personal sympathies for the Germans.
For example, after reading Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who is known for his anti-Semitic works; he fires two German-Jewish maids without a reason. Though he later repents his decision, it’s too late.
Stevens knows that his master is wrong in some instances, but turns a blind eye to his follies. The butler claims he likes to serve someone, who is not just superior to him in position or wealth, but also superior as a person. Though a very able and thinking man, Stevens does not give a second thought to the flaws in Lord Darlington’s approach on Germany or Jews. He refuses to comment when questioned in this regard.
In his almost fanatical commitment to his job and Lord Darlington, what he loses out on is personal relationships. Despite intense feelings for the housekeeper Ms Kenton, who is very much his equal in the household staff hierarchy and has reciprocal sentiments for him, he refuses to give in.
Very early in the film, one realizes that the emotional ties being explored are not just between any two ordinary humans, but also a very unique duo. It is obvious, the butler and housemaid like each other. But what is appealing is the restrained interplay between the two, particularly Stevens. While this reflects a certain internal and external dignity in him, it is eventually also shown as his failing.
One instance when Stevens appears inhuman is when his father passes away. Rather than rushing to his father’s room, he simply carries on with his work as a very important conference is underway at Darlington Hall. When Ms Kenton asks him for permission to “close his father’s eyes”, as he is too engaged; Stevens thanks her profusely saying his father would have not approved of him neglecting his duty to his master!
As far as Stevens’ romantic dilemma is concerned, his suffering seems purely self inflicted. Even when Ms Kenton gently opens prospects for a closer relationship, Stevens goes stone cold. He is anguished when he sees her dating someone else, just because she is frustrated with his aloofness. He is hurt, but refuses to succumb. Finally when Ms Kenton announces that she has accepted a marriage proposal from their common friend Mr Benn, Stevens is devastated, but will not show it. He thinks he needs a drink. He goes to the cellar to get a bottle of wine for himself, but is so disturbed that the bottle slips from his hand. It is in these delicate ways of expression that the film is a winner.
One needs to understand the social conditions in England of those days. There was a premium attached to the quality of dignity. Total commitment from senior household staff members meant that the idea of marriage was frowned upon. A person was expected to remain single, so that he could serve with full attention. This is exemplified by two others younger members of staff, who are shown the door the moment they express their intention to tie the knot.
It is also here where the old English mannerism of over-constraint is shown as a fault. A viewer is left questioning whether holding back to such an extent nearly dehumanizes a person. For example, Stevens seems nearly an android when Ms Kenton breaks down, crying bitterly as she is unsure about marrying someone other than him, still hoping that Stevens will open up to her. He understands the situation exactly and the way they both feel. Yet, he utters not one word of consolation, nor even offers a simple pat on her shoulder. He just tells her about a household chore that needs her attention and moves out the room. One is baffled as to what would melt the man!
The book constantly switches back and forth from year 1956 in flashbacks. The Second World War, which had eventually become a necessity, is now over. The Suez Canal crisis is also resolved and the English and French troops are moving out of Egypt. Lord Darlington is no more. He died broken, dejected, his reputation in tatters and him being declared a traitor by the media. The Darlington Hall has been purchased by an American Congressman(played by Christopher Reeve), who had opposed the previous owner’s pro-Germany stance. And there is a vacancy for a housekeeper’s job.
Stevens has received a letter from Ms Kenton, now Mrs Benn, which indicates that she is unhappy in her marriage. His new American master encourages Stevens to take a break and meet Ms Kenton, so as to offer her the post once again. But in reality this journey, actually becomes for Stevens, a voyage into his own life.
As he drives down, it gives Stevens time to cogitate. He reflects about his relationship with Ms Kenton and admits to his lost years. The butler also takes a more practical view of his previous boss. On the way, he bumps into people, who poke fun at his old employer Darlington, calling him a Nazi. Stevens finally acknowledges that his master, for whom he has given up the best part of his life, was not such a superior man after all.
When he reaches the seaside town where Ms Kenton is now living, they meet over tea. They share their thoughts frankly about their lives and their past. Ms Kenton discloses that when Stevens let her go away, she had not fully comprehended the implications of her choice and was unhappy for a very long time. And now that Stevens is making her an offer to return, ironically enough and despite everything, she has come to realize that she does love her husband. Moreover, she has just learnt that her daughter is pregnant and she would not like to move away and miss seeing her grandchild grow.
Stevens understands, but is deeply disappointed. Over twenty years earlier, he had chosen to walk away. Today, she is closing the chapter.
It is wet indigo twilight and they are sitting on a wharf when lights suddenly come on and there is much cheering. Ms Kenton says that people clap everyday, when the lights are switched on because “for some, evening is the best part of the day”.
Herein lies the crux of the whole story and the reason why ‘The Remains of the Day’ is such a perfect title. Personally, it is the evening of Stevens’ life. In another sense, he represents the last of the generation of the old English class. Only dregs now remain of the high and rigorous moral standards. With Lord Darlington dead and the Hall auctioned, socially, it indicates the decay of the grand English households. And politically, it represents the decline of England as a power centre of the world.
For Stevens and Ms Kenton, it is time to say goodbye. They are waiting in the rain for her bus. She climbs on, like two decades earlier, her eyes are brimming with tears and she cannot hold back. Stevens, who is reluctant to let her go, yet again stands there stoically, merely doffing his hat.
Like any great craft - art, music, books or films – the thing that works for the film is that it moves you. Its distinction lies in the fact that it not only touches a deep chord, it also brings alive vividly an experience that may not have come your way.
‘The Remains of the Day’ has that power. It also has a subtlety. There is no great tragedy, yet it is tragic; it is not filled with mirth, yet it has hope. That is what makes it such refined reading or viewing. That it lingers with you, grows on you and stays with you for a very very long time.
The film closes when Stevens returns to Darlington Hall and his new master. The house furnishings are being redone according to the taste of the new owner. There is also a new housekeeper expected. Symbolically a pigeon, which falls in the fire grate and is trapped in hall, is freed by the American through a window and the bird flies into an open sky.
Ms Kenton’s statement that “for some, evening is the best part of the day” and then the pigeon’s flight to freedom symbolize respectively Stevens’ attempt to hold on intensely to what is left of his life, while letting go of his emotional baggage, so that he can make a fresh start.
For England, it indicates new times for its politics and society; it also gives a glimmer of hope that Stevens will find that space, where one makes peace with himself and his life.
…………. Old, after all, is not always a golden age. New not always is such a bad thing!