There’s nothing to being a butler, really; when you’re in the room, it should be even more empty. -Cyril Dickman, former butler (for 50 yrs) at Buckingham Palace
In pre-WWII England, the duty-bound head butler at Darlington House, Stevens (Anthony Hopkins- age 55 and at the top of his game), meets his (potential) match in a young housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson- just 33 and already quite accomplished). Stevens oversees a staff of over 30 servants; Miss Kenton is second-in-charge (though she isn’t afraid to stand up to him when he is wrong). Stevens’ elderly father (Peter Vaughn, best known for Game of Thrones) works as an under-butler, though he is in failing health. The young nephew of Lord Darlington (James Fox), Mr. Cardinal (Hugh Grant), worries that his uncle is making the wrong decisions. (Grant once stated that this movie was the best one that he ever made.) Leaders from various nations gather at the house for an important conference, incl. the American senator, Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve- a fine performance and looking gorgeous). The possibility of love and his master’s involvement w/ the cause of appeasement (w/ the Nazis) challenge Stevens’ orderly little world, as well as the world-at-large!
...as a bit like a priest who puts his life almost on an altar. He serves his lord unconditionally, and in this case, his lord is literally a Lord (Darlington). Perhaps it’s a mentality that we don’t know so well in the United States, except in the military, or indeed, in the priesthood. Within Stevens’ life there is a very, very small area that is his, and the rest of the time he belongs to, or is committed to, a larger idea, or ideal: that of unquestioning service to an English aristocrat: his master, right or wrong. -James Ivory, director (describing Stevens)
Stevens is a devoted man. He’s very conscientious of his duties, but he never wants to express himself too loudly. He has been trained since birth to know his place, never to speak out. That is one of the things which is sad about the film. Stevens has lost the opportunity in life. He wanted Miss Kenton, but he never could come to express his feelings to her. If you are not ready to express yourself or grab the moment, you lose out. -Ismail Merchant, producer
Did you know that many of the individuals who contributed to this film are outsiders to British high society? The author of the source novel, Kazuo Ishiguro, was born in Japan and raised in England by his immigrant parents. As a young man in his 20s, he traveled across the US, w/ the dream of becoming a singer/songwriter. Director James Ivory is an American known for his calm demeanor and low-key style. Ismail Merchant (his partner in work and life) hailed from India; he was known for his outgoing personality. Their frequent collaborator/screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a German-born/Jewish Brit who married an Indian man and lived most of her life in India. She also wrote the screenplays for A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992)- which also starred Hopkins and Thompson. Hopkins is from a small town in Wales (where his idol-turned-mentor, Richard Burton, also grew up). Reeve is American, though he attended college/trained for several years in England.
Stevens: …a man cannot call himself well-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.
This movie was nominated for 8 Oscars incl. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay Adapted from Another Medium, Best Original Music Score, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (but it didn’t win in any of these categories)! John Cleese was offered the role of Stevens and loved Ishiguro’s novel. He withdrew after Harold Pinter (the first screenwriter) “took the humor out.” Anjelica Huston was being considered for Miss Kenton; Meryl Streep wanted the role, but didn’t get it (a rare case)! Jeremy Irons had also been considered for a part in this movie (I’m assuming Lord Darlington). Look for young/Irish actress Lena Headey (Cersei on Game of Thrones) as a maid who falls in love w/ the head footman, Charlie (Ben Chaplin).
Lewis: You are, all of you, amateurs. And international affairs should never be run by gentlemen amateurs. Do you have any idea of what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could just act out of your noble instincts, are over. Europe has become the arena of realpolitik, the politics of reality. If you like: real politics. What you need is not gentlemen politicians, but real ones. You need professionals to run your affairs, or you’re headed for disaster!
I saw this movie a few times as a teen w/ my family; we tended to watch more drama than comedy (even when young). FYI: My parents lived 7 years in England in the 1970s (where I was born). I’m definitely an anglophile, as some of you have already noticed from this blog (as well as my tweets). Though this is mainly a story of unrequited love, on my recent re-watch, I noticed the importance of politics. After all, we (in U.S.) just had an “amateur” go into politics (which Sen. Lewis warned against); he even become president in 2016! Just b/c Lord Darlington had class privilege and wealth, he assumed he was better suited to make decisions than common men. In one of the deleted scenes, Lord Darlington even commented to Stevens that “democracy won’t work in England.” Compare that w/ the scene in the pub (in the final act), where an opinionated/working-class man declares: “I think any man in England has the right to be called a gentleman.”
The British Government was trying to keep England on an even keel, so that they would not have to go back to war. World War I was a terrible tragedy for that country, and no one wanted to face a war of that sort again. Historically, it seems now to have been a fruitless and dangerous kind of appeasement of a proven dictator, but a generation of young Englishmen had been recently decimated by the Germans, so it’s not surprising that figures in the British government in the late thirties tried to reason with Hitler. -James Ivory, director (on Naziism and WWII aspects of the movie)
In the 1930s, Stevens was proud to serve his Master’s cause. As the years pass, and new, more accurate information becomes available, Stevens’ pride diminishes. Lord Darlington is used as a pawn by the Nazis, because he yields to a common aristocratic urge to contribute something large to the world. He is somebody who starts off with very good and noble impulses, but because of a certain kind of naiveté, which almost all of us would share, he becomes a pawn. -Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the novel
There is some terrific acting here, from both Hopkins and Thompson; they’d previously played a romantic pair in Howard’s End (which I haven’t seen in many years). They seem to genuinely like and respect each other also IRL. The key to Stevens is restraint, though he probably feels deeply (you just see it in his eyes). Miss Kenton eventually reveals her emotions; Stevens can’t express himself to her (sadly). In the tense/pivotal scene in Stevens’ study, Miss Kenton asks re: what book he is reading. She questions/teases him until he backs himself into a dark corner. In perhaps a (masculine/penetrative) move, Miss Kenton enters Stevens’ personal space and takes the book from his hands. Their faces are very close, but (alas) there is no kiss! Some critics/viewers have wondered what exactly Miss Kenton sees in Stevens. Perhaps he is attractive b/c he is unapproachable (hard to get)?