The Remains of the Day (1993) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A rule bound head butler's world of manners and decorum in the household he maintains is tested by the arrival of a housekeeper who falls in love with him in pre-WWII Britain. The possibility of romance and his master's cultivation of ties with the Nazi cause challenge his carefully maintained veneer of servitude.

  • Approximately a quarter century in the lives of James Stevens and Sarah Benn née Kenton - called Sally in the most casual of circumstances - is presented. The bulk of their story takes place in the first few years after their meeting in the 1930s when Mr. Stevens, who has worked this entire period as the butler at Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, hires Miss Kenton as the new housekeeper for Lord Darlington's stable of servants. The story focuses on their relationship as coworker servants, with Mr. Stevens' position as head of the manor servant staff. An epilogue of sorts is also presented in the 1950s after a twenty year separation and a seven year period of non-correspondence where Mr. Stevens, still at Darlington Hall working as butler for its new owner, retired American Congressman Lewis, goes to visit now separated Mrs. Benn where she now lives in Clevedon in the west country to ask her to return to service at Darlington Hall. Congressman Lewis bought the manor following Lord Darlington's death, his life which eventually was mired in scandal regarding his geopolitical work before, during and after the war. That relationship between Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton is dictated largely by Mr. Stevens' priority on what he sees as proper decorum in their work, which results in him largely hiding his emotions from everyone, while Miss Kenton, who still does her job as good as any housekeeper, wants Mr. Stevens to come out from that decorum which may make him an even better butler. As feelings start to develop between the two, that wall of decorum that Mr. Stevens has built may prevent anything from happening, especially fraternization between staff has largely been frowned upon by both of them as a disruption to the household.

  • It is the late-1950s and, due to the death of Lord Darlington, Darlington Hall has just been bought by Jack Lewis, an American. On the staff of the hall is the head butler, James Stevens. Through his eyes we see the what took place in the hall over the last 25 or so years, including the lead-up to World War 2, Stevens' undying devotion to his job and master and his relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

  • A butler who sacrificed body and soul to service in the years leading up to World War II realizes too late how misguided his loyalty was to his lordly employer.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In 1950s England, Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the butler of Darlington Hall, receives a letter from Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), who worked with him as housekeeper during the years prior to the Second World War. Twenty years later, Lord Darlington (James Fox) has died and his stately country manor has been sold to a retired American Congressman, Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve). Kenton reveals that her marriage has failed and that she is nostalgic for the days when she worked at the house. Stevens (now one of the few remaining servants from the Darlington era) goes to visit Miss Kenton, ostensibly to persuade her to return to service.

    The film flashes back to Kenton's arrival as housekeeper. At the time, Darlington Hall was frequented by many politicians of the interwar period, men who decided important affairs of state while there. Stevens, loyal and perfectionistic, calm and efficient, had to manage the household so that the servants seemed almost invisible, and he took great pride in his skills and his profession. He clashed with Miss Kenton, his equal in the household hierarchy, but displayed only understated irritation with her and others. Indeed, his utter focus and emotional repression were most fully displayed when his own father, also an employee, was dying; Stevens continued his duties without pause.

    Miss Kenton was equally efficient and strong-willed but warmer and less repressed. Relations between the two eventually warmed and Kenton even teased Stevens. It becomes clear that she had fallen in love with him, and perhaps he with her, though his feelings are left ambiguous. She tried to break through the wall, but Stevens' coldness was too formidable. Finally, she struck up a relationship with another man and married him, leaving the house just before the outbreak of World War II. Before her departure, she insulted Stevens, clearly out of distress that he had never expressed any emotional interest in her, but he still refused to be moved. When she cried in frustration, the only response he could muster was to call her attention to a domestic task.

    Lord Darlington used his influence to broker the policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. He irritated Congressman Lewis, one of the dignitaries at a conference, who argued in favour of the foreign policy being conducted by "professionals" rather than by "gentlemen amateurs". After reading the work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Lord Darlington commanded that two German-Jewish maids should be dismissed, considering their employment inappropriate. Stevens carried out the order but Miss Kenton almost resigned in protest, fearing that the girls would have to return to Germany; her own need for employment caused her to avoid following through. Darlington later regretted his decision and asked Stevens to reinstate the maids, but they could not be located.

    Darlington died a broken man, his reputation destroyed after he had been denounced a traitor in the Daily Mail. When asked about his former employer, Stevens at first denies having served or even met him but later admits to having served him. He recognises his former master's failings and indicates that he has regrets about his own life, as does Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn). However, Kenton declines Stevens' offer to return to Darlington Hall, announcing instead that she wants to remain with her husband, since their daughter is soon to present them with a grandchild. After the meeting, Stevens departs for Darlington Hall in a downpour of rain. Kenton cries, while Stevens, still unable to demonstrate any feeling, simply raises his hat.

    The film's final scene shows Stevens making the final preparations to Darlington Hall in preparation for the arrival of Congressman Lewis' family. As the two men enter the banquet hall, where a table tennis table now lies, Congressman Lewis reflects on the banquet that he attended in this room in 1935 and admits embarrassment over his comments. He asks Stevens if he remembers the comments, to which Stevens replies that he was too busy serving. Symbolically, a pigeon then flies into the room through the fireplace and becomes trapped in the hall. The two men eventually coax it out a window and it flees to freedom, leaving Stevens and Darlington Hall behind.

    In this movie appears Wolf Kahler who will later play Ludendorff, chemist and Fritz Shimon Haber's close friend in Haber (2008).

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