My 20 Favourite Films #16: The Remains of the Day

Contributor: Rick McGimpsey


The Remains of the Day is a film that is not a favourite of mainstream Hollywood since it relies primarily on dialogue and character development to progress the story. There is little action, no sex, and nothing at all fast-paced. It’s a film that tells its story by letting its audience observe the behaviours and conversations its inhabitants have throughout the few decades it takes place.

The film, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, centres around a British butler named Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) who is the epitome of devotion to one’s work. His time, efforts, and life revolve around his job as a butler and suppressing any inconvenient emotion that may hinder his effectiveness as an employee. He claims that a man cannot be truly happy unless he has done his utmost to fulfill the needs of his employer. This results in Mr. Stevens being an altogether humourless man with no friends, personal life, or any meaningful relationships. The connections he makes with the staff, including the head housekeeper (Emma Thompson), are maintained at a professional equilibrium that frustrates any attempt to befriend or get to know him.

His employer is Lord Darlington who, in his youth, had befriended a German soldier during the first world war who eventually shot himself when the Versailles Treaty ended any chance of his recovering from the war financially. This led Lord Darlington to sympathise with the Germans at the outset of World War II so as a personal favour to his late friend Mr Darlington supported the Nazi party. He invites several Nazi politicians into his home and even, in an effort to please them, fires his Jewish staff.

Being the fiercely loyal butler, Mr. Stevens observes all this indifferently despite the protests from some of the staff and his own hidden away misgivings. As the years go by we see how Stevens’ work ethic leads him to a life of loneliness and disillusionment, contemplating what a life away from Darlington Hall would have been like. He finds that he will never know as he is too old to move on and do something else.

The Remains of the Day is a brilliant drama that shows how good intentions and good results can be separate and opposite things. Lord Darlington wanted to do right by his dead friend and ends up being vilified and labeled as a Nazi-supporter. Mr. Stevens in an attempt to be the dutiful servant ends up a lonely man who led a life without significance or meaning.

A thoughtful viewer after observing how Stevens’ dull routine became his point of existence may begin to question their own life and how their decisions and life choices define their existence as a whole. The Remains of the Day is a film for people who like to think about life. The film shows us that life is short and is only lived once. It is a crime against oneself to spend it without any meaning to it.

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