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‘The Remains of the Day’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 05, 1993

"The Remains of the Day" perfectly captures the melancholia that sometimes settles on a body like the gloaming, when the dying light seems profoundly sad and yet magical. Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel, this is yet another jewel in the crown for the team who adapted "A Room With a View" and "Howards End."

Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala return to the feather-dusted drawing rooms and closely clipped lawns of England in this meticulously made tragicomedy of manners. A cousin of Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence," it is founded on its protagonist's inability to act -- which might seem the ultimate tragic flaw to Americans born to mobility instead of the rigid British class system.

The filmmakers, with customary nuance and scathing wit, crumble the upper crust while breaking hearts with this poignant portrait of Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the perfect English butler. The film opens in 1958, when Stevens sets off for the west country in hopes of persuading the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), to return to Darlington Hall, where they worked together for so many years. The estate has recently been purchased by an American millionaire (Christopher Reeve), who has suggested this quest.

As he drives the gas-guzzling old Daimler toward the coast, he reviews his years with Lord Darlington (James Fox), a reverie that extends back 20 years and leads him to the realization that he has wasted his life on an unworthy master. Darlington, an arrogant ninny, was among those aristocrats who sought an alliance with the Nazis before Britain entered World War II.

But engrossed in the domestic details of his employer's frequent diplomatic conclaves, Stevens ignored the stuff of his own life. He neglected his dying father (Peter Vaughan) and denied his love for Miss Kenton, who finally gave up on him and married another man (Tim Pigott-Smith). But when they finally meet again 20 years later, it's as plain as her face has become that she loves him still.

Thompson, in a performance as polished as the Darlington silver, infuses the film with warmth, humor and enormous passion despite the starchiness of her apron. Clearly she and Hopkins, who played her husband in "Howards End," carry over much of the rapport they shared in that film. They are at once a staid and sexy couple, though they never speak of love, only of the parlor's needing a good dusting.

Hopkins gives the performance of his life as the closely guarded gentleman's gentleman. With only an arched brow, a slight weariness in his stride, the flicker of a smile, he leaves you shattered. It's a measured performance, pitched to the rafters.

"The Remains of the Day," like "The Age of Innocence," is about a love that might have been, but wasn't. While virtually every scene resonates with longing, there is one that is a masterpiece of unspoken love -- and somehow calls up visions of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in "It's a Wonderful Life." Stevens, the man with the moat around his heart, is reading a book, and when Miss Kenton teasingly tries to take it away from him, it's crushing to learn that it is a common romance novel.

Hopkins and Thompson's downright marvelous duet is supported by a host of deft players, and the detailed re-creation of this small universe is in all ways remarkable. "The Remains of the Day" is, in other words, what we have come to expect from Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala. There is not a false note in the movie.

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