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‘The Remains of the Day’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 05, 1993

Put Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and James Fox together and you can expect sterling performances. This trio could make "Conan the Barbarian" feel like one of the great works. Adapt a novel as touching and accomplished as Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" and you can expect wonders. A classically polished drama about repressed emotions, self delusion and protracted heartbreak, this Merchant/Ivory movie is one of the most affecting experiences of the year.

As the British butler Stevens, Hopkins's mannerly ways are the polished veneer of a deeply held obsession: to keep Darlington Hall running smoothly and perfectly. During the 1930s, the master of the house, Lord Darlington, regularly entertained royalty, government officials and political envoys at international conferences. Matters of the nation, and the world, were considered -- and acted upon -- here. Lord Darlington (Fox) believed that the world should be run by its gentlemen. His guests, English, French and German, all came from the mannered classes.

It was incumbent on Stevens (whose faith in Lord Darlington was absolute) to maintain an impeccable household, therefore doing his part for king and country. The butler was capable of attending the most politically sensitive conferences without a moment's attention to what they were saying, his concentration fixed entirely on the domestic. It was not his place to listen.

Stevens's years with Lord Darlington, however, are a thing of the past. It is now 1958 and Darlington Hall is owned by Lewis (Christopher Reeve), a former American senator who cares not a fig for decorum. When his new employer gives Stevens leave to take his first road trip across the country, it's the beginning of a voyage of discovery. Stevens, en route to look up a former acquaintance, ex-Darlington Hall housekeeper Miss Kenton (Thompson), is about to realize what his years of single-minded devotion have cost him.

Miss Kenton, a fine, fiercely intelligent individual, heads that list. When the two worked together, they clashed repeatedly. Her suggestions for minor improvements in his modus operandi, her moral observations (of Lord Darlington's treatment of Jewish refugees) and in particular, her attempts to become closer to him, have largely been ignored -- or thwarted -- by the impassive Stevens. In frustration, she has long since left Darlington Hall to marry a minimally appealing suitor. Now, it's time for a reckoning -- British style, of course.

Stevens may have ruined his chances for a romantic life by stifling all feelings for Miss Kenton, but he has deeper moral issues to face. In steadfastly supporting Darlington on genteel grounds alone, he has willfully ignored the lord's questionable prewar political dealings.

Of course, the English countryside and its stately homes are wonderful things to drink in here. But, in keeping with the conservative look of most Merchant/Ivory films, there are no real cinematic moments to remember. It hardly matters. Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have sagely concentrated on the emotional power of Ishiguro's narrative. If ever there was a novel to be faithful to, it is this one: Every great moment in the movie (not counting the acting) can be traced to the book.

As for that acting, the central conflict between Hopkins and Thompson -- a veritable Trojan War of implications and ironies -- makes for the best moments you'll see on screen this year. Fox plays his part with magnificent ease, nobility brimming from his every gesture. There is also wonderfully touching work from Peter Vaughan as Hopkins's father. Too old to be a butler, he has been charitably reassigned as an under-butler by his son. But the demotion also has its physical demands. Vaughan's ailing, failing attempts to maintain dignity are among the most poignant scenes in the movie.

The cast (including Hugh Grant, Michael Lonsdale and Tim Piggott-Smith) is so uniformly good, it completes the sense of seamlessness, like a perfectly realized banquet. Sit down to this and savor the human sumptuousness.

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