Anthony Hopkin's interpretation of the single-minded English butler, Mr. Stevens, has to be one of the most fully realized roles ever to appear on film. His interaction with the lovely and intelligent housekeeper, Miss Kenton, is so realistic that it is painful to watch. Despite his growing love and admiration for her, he keeps his feelings firmly under control, determined that they will not destabilize his carefully crafted existence. Always expecting Stevens to make the first move, Miss Kenton tries everything in her power to get under his skin or to make him jealous, but she only succeeds in torturing them both all the more. The emotional turning point of the movie takes place in Mr. Steven's private room, where he has fallen asleep in his chair while reading a novel. Enter Miss Kenton in a playful mood carrying another bunch of flowers to brighten up his quarters. Curious about his reading material, she tries to get the book away from him because he refuses to tell her what it is. She moves in close, as close as they ever will be, and as she struggles for the volume, Stevens longingly admires her lovely countenance, her soft hair, and no doubt gets a good strong whiff of her sweet fragrance, wishing he could gently kiss her and take her in his arms, but that would lead to ... what? Finally, he allows her to pull the book from his grasp and Miss Kenton finds that it is far from what she had expected, being just some sentimental old love story. This is, of course, a poignant revelation. She looks up at him, her love as obvious as their proximity, and they gaze into one another's eyes for a few brief seconds. Then Stevens simply tells her to please respect his privacy and to leave him alone. Callously rebuffed, she does just that, for the rest of his earthly days. It is the biggest mistake that Mr. Stevens has ever made, and for a very competent and exacting man, it is all too apparent that he must have made many such extremely serious errors. On her next evening off, he watches helplessly from the window as Miss Kenton rides her bicycle into town, knowing that on that very day, he has somehow all but lost her for good. The pain and anxiety on his face are palpable, if brilliantly underplayed. Stevens gets one final chance to forestall the inevitable, her impending marriage to Tom Bent, but as per usual, does nothing to stop it because duty calls.
Nearing the conclusion of the movie, when they are reunited after a generation has passed, Stevens is crestfallen to learn that Miss Kenton has changed her mind at the last minute and, following her divorce, will not be returning with him to resume her duties as housekeeper at Darlington Hall. Instead, she has chosen to remain "in the west country" in order to help bring up her granddaughter. Of course, poor sad Stevens couldn't even consider seeking employment in that locale in order to eke out a few years of bliss with Sara in what remains of his sad, lonely life. When they part company for the last time, he holds onto her hand for as long as he can, then as she tearfully rides away in the bus, he lifts his hat to the only woman he has ever loved and who has ever loved him. As if on autopilot, Stevens climbs back into the Daimler and turns over the engine. The hollow, utterly defeated look on his face belies the fact that the only thing left for him now is to face his inevitable death in a few short years. The camera does a closeup on the car's headlight and he starts back for his comfortable old rut of a life.
Stevens was the consummate professional whereas his rival, Bent, placed strict limits on what he would tolerate from his employer, one of Lord Darlingon's aristocratic and bigoted colleagues. As such, he simply resigned from "service" in order to live life on his own terms. He doesn't squander his second chance to marry Miss Kenton and easily takes her away from Stevens, who obstinately and pridefully clings to his all-consuming job as far more important than affairs of the heart. Why? Perhaps because he is very skilled at the former and extremely inept at the latter. Instead of experiencing all the tenderness that the admiring Miss Kenton wanted to give him, he chose instead the importance of his position at Darlington Hall, a world stage where matters of serious consequence were considered in the midst of vast and lush grounds set in the beautiful English countryside. At the conclusion of the movie, we follow a trapped pigeon that is released from the confines of the mansion. It flies heavenward, and as the moving score builds to crescendo, we are treated to a bird's eye view of the magnificent estate for which Stevens has given up everything to be a part. What exactly does the pigeon represent? We can only guess, but one thing is certain. "The Remains of the Day" is a beautiful and poignant movie, wonderfully acted by the two principals and effectively supported by the rest of the cast. Further, the writing, cinematography, score, and directing are nearly flawless. This has to be one of the best movies of the last several decades.
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