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What the Butler Saw

The Remains of the Day

directed by James Ivory, produced by Mike Nichols, by John Calley, by Ismail Merchant, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

It is untrue to say, as some critics do, that Merchant and Ivory movies have no individual style. Nor is it fair to dismiss their style, as other critics do, as a cinematic version of Ralph Lauren or Laura Ashley, even though it appeals to the same taste for fashionable nostalgia. Perhaps as a reaction against the snobbery of social and artistic modernism, we live in a regressive age marked by neo-Victorian novels (Vikram Seth), neo-Victorian music (Górecki), and neo-Victorian mores (“family values” and so on). If the Victorians had made films, one might call Merchant Ivory productions neo-Victorian movies.

The visual style of Merchant Ivory pictures is reminiscent of the society paintings by John Singer Sargent and James Tissot: plush, colorful, opulent, beautiful, but, like Victorian banquets, a little too rich for the modern palate. Realism was not their aim. Tissot and Sargent were interested in the surface of things. Form in their paintings is the substance. The message is in the clothes and the interiors, as much as, if not more than, in the faces. Like Merchant Ivory, both Tissot, a Frenchman, and Sargent, an American born in Florence, saw the glitter of English high society through foreign eyes. Theirs was a stylized vision of a world that was slowly disappearing. Merchant Ivory, of course, concentrate on a world that has already gone. But although the look of their films undoubtedly evokes nostalgia, nostalgia is not their main concern. Their work is more Victorian than that: Merchant Ivory are specialists in gilded prisons, in people living in beautiful places, trapped inside themselves, hence their interest in E.M. Forster, in Henry James, and indeed in Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day would seem perfect for the Merchant Ivory treatment. Set in a very grand house, in the English countryside, in the 1930s, it has all their visual hallmarks: fine clothes, fine paintings, fine cars, and fine people played by fine actors. Above all, it has their characteristic theme: a man trapped inside the mannerisms of his frigid public role, incapable of expressing his feelings, a man who has successfully closed the gap between form and substance. Stevens does not just perform his duties as a butler; he is a butler. Hence even in, no, especially in, moments of high emotional tension (his father’s death, for example), he can only express himself as a butler, fussing about the silverware, keeping the footmen on their toes, worrying whether the gentlemen are in need of refreshments.

Visually, The Remains of the Day is an impressive and sophisticated piece of work. Tony Pierce-Roberts’s camera beautifully captures the claustrophobia of life in a great country house: the narrow corridors of the servants’ quarters, the cramped butler’s pantry, the crowded kitchen, the hustle and bustle up and down the back stairs. A great deal of the action takes place in this “below stairs” warren, the fiefdom of housekeeper and butler. The camera rarely pulls back to provide space. We see things in close-up: game being prepared, floors dusted, tables polished, bells ringing commands from upstairs, a slice of less than perfectly toasted bread stuffed into the butler’s pocket. Much is also shown through windows and keyholes. This is truly an anal universe, tense, airless, tightly controlled.

The atmosphere above stairs is hardly less oppressive. The rooms are huge and splendidly furnished, but the people in them, whether sitting stiffly at formal dinners, or sunk in their chairs by the fire, look dwarfed by their surroundings. Lord Darlington, the owner of the house, is a melancholy figure, often to be seen brooding in the half light. He is, however, a courteous, even kindly man, who is at the same time utterly remote from the busy army of professionals below stairs. They work hard to enable him to be an amateur and a gentleman, dedicated to high-minded pursuits such as peace, honor, and making sure the world doesn’t change. And yet everything is changing. We know it is changing, for the worse. We can tell by the relentlessly ominous score by Richard Robbins, and the shadows darkening the great rooms, and panoramic shots of the English countryside in the afterglow of sunset.

So the movie looks splendid. Arcadian views and honeyed filters have been largely resisted. But the content, that is to say, the script, has problems. To be sure, dramatizing Ishiguro’s delicate prose must have been a daunting task. Unlike novels by Dickens, say, which are visual and full of dramatic twists of plot, Ishiguro’s book does not lend itself naturally to film. The subtlety of his story lies less in atmosphere, or plot, or vivid description, than in the language, the peculiar stilted language of the butler himself. Stevens tells his own story, how he lived to be a great butler, to serve his master, whom he trusted blindly; and how he failed to be troubled or even curious about his lordship’s Nazi sympathies. Gradually, never directly, he tells us how he was blind to his own feelings for his housekeeper, Miss Kenton, and her feelings for him. And finally, he reveals a crack of very deep regret in the façade of his butler’s life, before reverting to his old instinct to serve, a new master this time, an American who has saved the great house from extinction.

Since the literary device of the butler’s narrative was discarded in the movie, other ways had to be found to penetrate the shell of Stevens’s demeanor. Much of the work is done by the face and body of Anthony Hopkins, who plays the butler to perfection. To see the ripples of confusion disturb, just for an instant, the set expression of unflappable servility, or the look of stifled affection for Miss Kenton, is to watch a master at work. And Miss Kenton is very well performed by Emma Thompson. But it is not enough. For the film makers felt the need to explain, by adding scenes, where the author just implied, or to simplify and condense, where the author elaborated carefully. The result is that in the translation from book to film, Ishiguro’s story has lost some of its finesse.

Part of the trouble, I think, is that the story hinges on a concept that can be expressed in words more easily than in moving pictures. The key word in the novel, repeated continuously in various ways, is dignity. It is the idea of dignity, in the mind of Stevens as well as his master’s, that links the politics in the story to the tragedy of the butler’s emotional impotence. In the book Stevens says:

The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by exterior events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of “dignity.”

Lord Darlington’s idea of dignity is that of the gentlemanly virtues: amateurism, fair play, chivalry toward a former enemy, and so on. Lord Darlington (like most English gentlemen at the time) was opposed to the Versailles Treaty and French vindictiveness toward Germany, because, as he says, “it does us great discredit to treat a defeated foe like this. A complete break with the traditions of this country.”

In the book this perfectly honorable and politically sensible opinion is expressed in the 1920s. After that, the politics are a bit fuzzy. But this fuzziness is made worse in the movie, which turns a fairly complex character into a one-dimensional simpleton. Unlike the original story, the film begins in the 1930s and Lord Darlington’s dinner table conversation opens with sympathetic references to Nazis. This can only leave the audience with the impression that Darlington was a convinced fascist, or, in the jargon of a later time, a useful idiot. Either way, there is little sense in another deviation from the book: the matter of firing two Jewish housemaids.

Nothing in the book suggests that the maids are not British. Lord Darlington: “Tell me, Stevens, we have a few on the staff at the moment, don’t we? Jews, I mean.” Stevens: “I believe two of the present staff members would fall into that category, sir.” They are dismissed, to the butler’s silent and Miss Kenton’s vociferous distress, because of Lord Darlington’s infatuation with anti-Semitism. This makes sense in the book. But in the film the two girls are turned into German Jewish refugees. Since it has already been established from the beginning that the lord had fascist sympathies, why on earth would he have employed refugees in the first place, let alone welcomed them to his house in broken German?

This almost matches the implausibility of another scene that was added especially for the film. Lord Darlington arranges a meeting at his house between Ribbentrop, as German ambassador, Chamberlain, as prime minister, and Lord Halifax, as foreign secretary. This takes place in the book as well, but with this difference. In Ishiguro’s version, Darlington’s aim is to persuade the prime minister to visit Berlin. In the movie, we hear Chamberlain making his famous speech about not wishing to intervene in a “far away country,” when the Germans are about to crush Czechoslovakia. That he would have rehearsed his speech in front of the German ambassador is highly unlikely, especially since this particular ambassador was by then already back in Berlin heading the ministry of foreign affairs.

But let us return to dignity and gentlemanly fascism. Ishiguro makes sense of all this by adding another concept of dignity which gets buried in the scenery of the film. On his way to meet Miss Kenton after the war, Stevens stops at a pub, where he is to stay the night. The locals regard him as a gentleman rather than a gentleman’s gentleman, an impression Stevens does nothing to dispel. Only the village doctor sees through him immediately. One of these locals is a man called Harry Smith. Smith appears in the film too, but only briefly, almost as a provider of atmospheric noise. In the book, Smith’s opinions are given more weight. Stevens and Smith have a discussion about dignity. Smith’s idea of dignity is a political one. He believes that dignity is not a gentlemanly privilege, but something everyone can strive for and get. It has to do with democracy. “That’s what we fought Hitler for,” Smith says. After all:

If Hitler had had things his way, we’d just be slaves now…. We won the right to be free citizens. And it’s one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out. That’s what dignity’s really about, if you’ll excuse me, sir.

Stevens doesn’t agree with this. Indeed he cannot agree, because it is the antithesis of his own idea of dignity. This is why in actual fact, though not in Ishiguro’s fiction, butlers and their like were easily recruited for the blackshirt cause. If the Smiths have their way—and by and large they have by now—the entire edifice of which Stevens is one small but vital part will tumble down. Stevens realizes this, but so, of course, does his master. This is confirmed in a conversation which regrettably was left out of the movie. The conversation follows a scene which is in the film. Late one night Darlington and two friends are debating, as Stevens puts it, “a weighty matter” in the drawing room. Stevens comes in with refreshments, and is asked to stay a while. To demonstrate the absurdity of taking account of public opinion in political affairs, one of the gentlemen asks for the butler’s views on such matters as international trade, French foreign policy, and so on. Stevens quickly perceives that polite bafflement by the questions is the appropriate response and says: “I’m very sorry, sir, but I’m unable to be of assistance on this matter.” The men laugh, the point is taken, Darlington looks embarrassed, and Stevens is dismissed. And that, in the movie, is where the matter rests.

In the book, however, master and servant have a further exchange the next morning. Darlington apologizes to his butler, but thanks him as well, for proving an important point. For the fact is that the world is too complicated to entrust weighty matters to “this universal suffrage nonsense.” Parliament, and all that, is an outmoded hindrance. As Darlington puts it: “The few people qualified to know what’s what are talked to a standstill by ignorant people around them. What do you make of it, Stevens?” Stevens politely confirms that the nation is indeed in a regrettable condition. Of course it is, replies Darlington, and that is why strong leadership, such as exists in Germany and Italy, is needed.

Now the politics of the story fall into place. Darlington is not just a soft, deluded gentleman, whose heart bleeds so profusely for Versailles that he loses touch with reality. He is attracted to fascism for a reason: weighty matters are in danger of slipping into the hands of hoi polloi, a trend which must be resisted. In a crisis-ridden world, bolshevism lurks. Fascism is both excitingly modern—to meet “the challenges of each new age means discarding old, sometimes well-loved methods”—and deeply reactionary. This makes him into an interesting and melancholy figure, for Darlington does have noble instincts, and so he is troubled and confused by his own attraction to the politics promoted by rough and ignoble men. Because the nature of this attraction is not apparent in the film, James Fox can deliver little else but his standard turn as the tweedy dunce, whose languid good manners are too fine for this squalid world.

Since Stevens is not a stupid man, self-doubt does briefly come to the surface very near the end of the story. Doubts sown by the conversation with Smith dovetail in the book with regrets about Miss Kenton, who is no less trapped than Stevens, in her case in an unhappy marriage. The romantic regrets are emphasized in the movie. On the way to his meeting with Miss Kenton, whom he now calls Mrs. Benn, he admits to the village doctor, who gives him a lift, that a mistake was made, which he will now endeavor to rectify. He hopes to persuade Mrs. Benn to leave her boarding house at a seaside resort and come back with him to Darlington Hall, and then, who knows… But it is not to be. Too many years have passed. Both lack the courage to push their lives into a different direction. Having realized this, they sit side by side on the rainy pier. The fairy lights along the pier catch the tears in the butler’s eyes as the catchy little tune played for the holiday makers adds poignancy to his sadness.

It is a moving scene, despite this musical cliché, brilliantly acted by Hopkins and Thompson, but the other doubt, the political one concerning the relationships with his master, is left hanging, or rather it has been scattered through the film without coming to the point. For the scene on the pier has replaced a different scene described in the original story. It, too, takes place on the pier, after Mrs. Benn has gone home. Stevens sits alone. An elderly man, in a “rather tired tweed jacket,” sits down next to him. He starts a conversation, but Stevens pays him little attention. The man turns out to have been a footman. He is fascinated to hear that Stevens is a butler in one of the great houses. Flattered, Stevens responds more keenly now to his questions. And then something extraordinary happens: for the first time in the story, the butler reveals his feelings to another human being. Lord Darlington, he begins, wasn’t a bad man:

He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?

A version of these lines found its way into the film, but they are spoken long before the end, to the village doctor. And their meaning is rather different. His lordship’s mistakes, says Stevens, only showed his gullibility. In the movie, responsibility is denied to the end, whereas in the book it is finally, even though briefly, recognize. In both versions of the story, Stevens becomes a dutiful butler once again. But the doubt has been expressed, the mind revealed.

In book and film, he returns to Darlington Hall, where his American master awaits him. Mr. Lewis, a former congressman, has introduced a looser style to the house, a friendlier, more egalitarian manner, which Stevens describes in the book as “bantering.” But the irony in Ishiguro’s story is delicious: instead of being liberated by the new regime, Stevens resolves to practice his “bantering skills” to meet perfectly the demands of his new master.

The film makers tried to capture this in a visual image. They chose a metaphor that is one of the corniest in the movie business, almost as corny as fairground music in a crying scene. It is the tried and trusted ending of an endless number of stories about trapped people—women trapped in brothels, men trapped in prisons, and now a butler trapped in a country house. Stevens is busy setting the house in order for Mr. Lewis. He helps to hang a painting, acquired by Mr. Lewis at an auction. They banter in the old banqueting hall, which now houses a ping-pong table. Just then a pigeon drops through the chimney and is trapped in the room. Stevens scampers after it, but the bird is caught by Mr. Lewis, who sets it free through the window. Stevens closes the window, as the camera pulls away, up and up, followed for an instant by the wistful gaze of the butler. The point is made. The irony is lost.

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