In the extraordinarily subtle climax of James Ivory’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Lord Darlington, a British aristocrat and Nazi appeaser, is in the study of his palatial estate in Oxfordshire. “We do the Jews no injustice when we say that the revelation of Christ is something incomprehensible and hateful to them,” he reads. “Although he apparently sprang from their midst, he embodies nevertheless the negation of their whole nature.” Lord Darlington is not an evil man. He’s not even particularly anti-Semitic. Earlier that year, he had allowed his head butler to hire two young German Jewish refugees as maids. But the book he’s studying, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a pseudo-scientific tract by the British racist and proto-fascist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, has convinced him that the two young women are no longer fit for service at Darlington Hall.
Mr. James Stevens, the head butler of Darlington Hall, a fiftyish man played by Anthony Hopkins, is the very embodiment of the British class system. He does what he’s told. He doesn’t speak unless he’s spoken to. He never talks about politics or religion. He is so utterly devoted to Lord Darlington that he not only follows orders. He convinces himself that Lord Darlington’s orders are always proper and good. If left to his own devices, it would never occur to Stevens to fire two innocent women merely on the basis of their religion, but now that he’s been told to, it would never occur to him to do anything else. “Miss” Sarah Kenton, the housekeeper played by Emma Thompson, by contrast, knows that what Lord Darlington has told Mr. Stevens to do is not only wrong. It’s evil. Without employment, the two women will be sent back to Germany, where they will be subject to the Nuremberg Laws, and eventually gassed. She threatens to resign. He tells her the decision is out of their hands, and the girls are dismissed.
Miss Kenton fails to make good on her threat to resign. She has nowhere else to go. She’s also deeply in love with Mr. Stevens, but the firing Elsa and Irma, the two young Jewish refugees, sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to her marrying Benn, another butler played by Tim Piggott-Smith. Miss Kenton is not in love with Benn. Unlike Mr. Stevens, however, he’s recognizably human. He likes women. He has his own opinions. He wants to “leave service” and break out on his own, to “open a little shop where he can sell tobacco and newspapers.” Above all, he has no stomach for Nazi appeasers. Even though the marriage ends in divorce, Miss Kenton made the right choice. Ivory’s imagination of the fictional night at Darlington Hall where Neville Chamberlain plots the rape of Czechoslovakia with Lord Darlington and his circle of British fascists has a quiet, yet palpable evil. Mr. Stevens, along with the rest of Britain, has repressed his emotions to the point where he has allowed this to happen without protest. Spiritually, he is a dead man, doomed to a lonely old age, and the deep fear of death that comes from knowing that he has never really lived.
For an American, or an Englishman in 2015, the world of Darlington Hall is a strange place. If working-class Americans serve evil, and they do, they do it mainly because they have dreams of upward mobility. Mr. Stevens is different. He doesn’t serve Lord Darlington because he hopes some day to be Lord Darlington, but precisely because he knows he will never be Lord Darlington. James Stevens has elevated the practice of conformism and obedience to an art. “A man is no use unless he’s of use to his employer,” he remarks, and he does his best to live up to his principles. The only time in The Remains of Day where Stevens proves to be a difficult employee is when he insists on keeping his 75-year-old father on the staff, in spite of the way the old-man is so obviously no longer fit for “service.” It is the exception that proves the rule. Disobedience, for James Stevens, is possible only when it’s obedience to the patriarchy.
James Stevens is better than a “good German.” He’s a “good Englishman,” the kind of man who made centuries of British imperialism possible, part of the reason why the British, unlike the French, never had a Revolution of 1848 or a Paris Commune. But Kazuo Ishiguro did not write The Remains of Day to bash the English. Rather, he’s making a statement about the psychology of working-class men and women so broken in spirit and so trained for obedience that they eventually lose the capacity, “even to make their own mistakes.”
Ishiguro would go on to explore the same themes with a greater degree of abstraction and universality in his later novel Never Let Me Go. If Mr. Stevens has repressed himself to the point where he has killed everything inside but obedience and conformity, then the young English men and women in Never Let Me Go are no longer even officially human, but rather, clones bred for their body parts and vital organs. Mr. Stevens can’t reciprocate Miss Kenton’s affections because sex between employees doesn’t serve the employer. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are sexually attracted to one another, but the state refuses to acknowledge that they can fall in love. After all, clones don’t have souls. When they time comes to give up a liver or a spleen, they have to report to surgery just like anybody else.
One striking quality about the film adaptations of both The Remains of Day and Never Let Me Go is how James Ivory, and later Mark Romanek, cast such decidedly non-working-class actors to play characters crippled by working-class repression. Anthony Hopkins, in 1993, was an A-List Hollywood star. Emma Thompson does her best to embody a lonely old maid servant, but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s a graduate of Cambridge. Carrie Mulligan who played Kathy H in the film version of Never Let Me Go attended Woldingham, a posh Catholic School in Surrey that also graduated Vivian Leigh and Princess Marie Adelaide of Luxembourg.
Does it work? I think it does.
Had James Ivory cast a rough-looking working-class actor as Stevens, and a plain, working-class woman as Sarah Kenton, they would have created a dissonant note in the aesthetics of the film. As head butler, James Stevens is essentially an actor, a man who has to work constantly at erasing any proletarian manners that he has left over from childhood. He is also a casting director, responsible for hiring and firing the staff under him. He is initially reluctant to hire Miss Kenton because, as played by the 34-year-old Emma Thompson, she’s young and beautiful. In the end, he decides to hire her precisely because she is young and beautiful, and he’s confident that he can pass the test she represents. Anybody can resist a homely old woman. Only a head butler who has perfectly mastered the art of conformity and repression could resist Miss Kenton.
At the end of The Remains of the Day, Mr. Stevens, now in his 70s, goes to visit the divorced Sarah Kenton, now Benn, and now in her 50s. The final scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are a miracle of repression and unhappiness. Their nostalgia for each other is palpable. But they dare not let it go any further than a brief visit. They part. Their hands touch. They separate. Sarah Benn has decided to live for her daughter. James Stevens goes back to Darlington Hall, to live out the rest of his days for a new employer, a rich American who no longer needs him, but who has kept him on as an act of kindness. Stevens’ perfect defeat his is perfect victory. It’s one thing to work for a ruling-class that needs you. It’s an even higher accomplishment to work for one that doesn’t.
Note: We never find out what happens to Elsa and Irma. In the book they’re both British citizens, and in no danger of going to the gas chamber. But it was an inspired choice for James Ivory to make them both German in the film. As Howard Zinn has remarked, the problem isn’t civil disobedience. It’s civil obedience. You could say that James Stevens’ conformism hurt nobody but himself. But it did.