The Remains of the Day (1993)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

A timeless, devastating tragedy about squandered romantic potential and a life half-lived

The Very Best



UK, United Kingdom
English, German
Drama, Romance
Anthony Hopkins, Ben Chaplin, Brigitte Kahn
134 min


Warning: there's so much unspoken yearning here it’ll drive you crazy.

What it's about

In 1930s England, a stoic and devoted butler has his life philosophy destabilized by the arrival of a new housekeeper.

The take

The visceral pain at the center of this adaptation from period drama powerhouse Merchant-Ivory comes not from fading or unrequited love but unrealized affection. Try as he might to repress his feelings, devoted butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) can’t stifle the blossoming attachment he shares with housemaid Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). And yet, at every opportunity she gives him to do something about it, he balks, squandering the potential for something truly beautiful — something that actually belongs to them, not their aristocratic employer.

The Remains is partly told in flashbacks to the period leading up to the Second World War. From his stately home, Stevens’ master Lord Darlington and his peers play at international relations and try to avoid another war by pandering to the Nazis, but find they’re woefully under-equipped to decide the fate of Europe in this changing world. One of the many brilliant things about The Remains is the way this political drama doubles the devastation of Stevens’ die-hard commitment to his job — because now, he’s sacrificing his one chance at love for something that won’t even survive the decade. Sublime filmmaking and performances turn Stevens’ every minute choice into a pillar of profound tragedy, giving us a maddeningly heartwrenching life lesson for the ages.

What stands out

Hopkins’ and Thompson’s performances, which are utterly career-best. Both are operating on an otherworldly level of sensitivity and eloquence here, with every tiny interaction carrying with it both the immense potential to change their lives and all the crushing torture of longing. That Stevens so often scuppers their chance at happiness could make him a simply frustrating character, but the filmmakers and Hopkins expertly frame him as a tragic figure by delicately conveying the sense that he’s been conditioned to be so emotionally constipated from birth. In the lordly household he manages, class divides are sharp, and knowing his place is the very foundation of his work (which, for Stevens, is also life). Thompson’s kind and open Miss Kenton is a mirror deepening the catastrophe of that mindset, a constant reminder of what could be. Much of the duo’s brilliance is done on a subtextual layer — owing to Stevens’ stiff upper lip — but in the film’s final few flash-forward scenes, Hopkins and Thompson bring everything to the gut-wrenching fore. Simply stunning.

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