As a first viewing of The Remains of the Day unfolds, the story seems merely to involve two stuffy old Brits who can’t admit their love for one another until it is too late, although the film lingers in the imagination too long to dismiss it so simply. The film begs for a second viewing, and on that second viewing, an entirely different film appears. On a first viewing, only the elegiac score suggests tragedy awaits, but the characters seem to love one another too obviously and too deeply for the credits to pass without at least one passionate kiss. Perhaps one of them will die shortly before the wedding, or be suddenly dismissed from their post and sent away in the middle of the night, but surely this is not the story of two ships ultimately passing in the night.
A second viewing also allows the audience time to puzzle over Mr. Stevens’ relationship with Lord Darlington, his employer. On a first viewing, the potential romance between Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton drives the story, but once we know nothing comes of that romance, our attention is free to meander over the rest of the plot, which is surprisingly extensive. On a fourth or fifth viewing, the film seems less and less about failed romance and more about Stevens’ tragic realization that the English aristocracy enjoys a lot of false praise, that the old world is on the way out, and that the 20th century looks to be a vicious, unfamiliar place from which no sane man would resist a swift exit.
Stevens is the butler of Darlington Hall, and well-read enough to know that Lord Darlington is virtuous, or that he must be treated as such. Stevens knows that aristocrats are the custodians of Britain’s identity and culture, and that were the aristocracy to fail, so would the entire empire. In his own imagination, then, Stevens is the custodian of the custodian of the nation. As we have come to expect of stories about aristocrats, Stevens sometimes sees Darlington in a negative light, and we suspect Stevens struggles to excuse his Lord’s vices while maintaining an unquestioning respect for him. The love Stevens and Kenton have for one another emerges in their work; aside from both fulfilling their duties with great proficiency, both remain quite hidden from one another.
The following scene is a microcosm of the entire film, and a fine example of the complex ways in which people represent themselves to one another. We are often making decisions about who we are and what we want as we discuss, as we argue; much of our contemplation happens on the fly, and no few important decisions emerge suddenly whilst we try to decide what mask we will wear, how vulnerable we will make ourselves, and how much of our own self-doubt we are willing to reveal. I say most of life is like this conversation:
SK: You’re reading. It’s very dim. Can you see?
JS: Yes, thank you.
The exchange is polite; Miss Kenton has brought flowers into Stevens’ study, as we’ve only to assume that the two are familiar enough with one another that they pass through one another’s personal space without much formality.
SK: What are you reading?
JS: A book.
At the point Stevens answers “A book,” he might already be trying to hide the nature of the book he is reading, because he is embarrassed of its’ content, or his commitment to the book might be so trivial it seems unworthy of description. Given Hopkins’ dismissive tone, it seems the book is not satisfying and does not deserve the dignity of being named.
SK: Yes, but what sort of book?
Miss Kenton has no reason to believe that Stevens’ is being secretive. If anything, she suspects he is being needlessly dismissive of his own interests. Kenton finds him fascinating, though, and wants to know anything about Stevens’ she can.
JS: It’s a book, Miss Kenton. A book.
When Kenton reaches for the book, the situation irrevocably sours. Stevens must immediately begin deciding if he will physically restrain Kenton from discovering the title of the book, or if he will come up with some plausible excuse for reading it. He does not decide right away, though, perhaps because, while he is embarrassed of the book, he enjoys the fact that Miss Kenton is showing him favor by revealing her intrigue at his habits. He merely wishes she were interested in something else. Hopkins slightly flops his head to the right, exasperated, perhaps, that after he has longed for Miss Kenton to take some interest in something about his personal life, she should happen to take an interest in something he regards as a guilty pleasure, a common romance novel. Not a work of philosophy. Not Cicero. Not Plutarch or Shakespeare, but a common romance.
SK: What’s the book? Are you shy about your book?
At first it appears that Stevens’ has retreated behind his desk, as though to put some space between Miss Kenton and himself; the desk also recalls the formal nature of their professional relationship. His desk is a reminder of his position as foremost of the staff. Miss Kenton pursues him, though, to his surprise.
SK: What is it? Is it racy?
Stevens’ is either genuinely confused about how Miss Kenton is using the word “racy,” or he knows immediately that she is using the word synonymously with “lurid.” I suspect it is the latter, and he is offended she should even suspect such a thing of him, let alone suspect it so casually, as though she would not be put off were the book racy. He has struggled to present himself as a gentleman, refined, every day of his life, and to know that Miss Kenton, whom he loves, suspects his taste in entertainment is lurid… well, this is disheartening, insulting.
SK: Are you reading a racy book?
JS: Do you think racy books are to be found in His Lordship’s shelves?
For the moment, it seems as though Stevens intends on withholding the title by force, if need be. Why? We find that the book is a common romance novel; are common romance novels to be found on his Lordship’s shelves? If so, does that not make Lord Darlington out to be somewhat common? If they are not to be found on Darlington’s shelves, then Hopkins might as well have a racy book, for he has acquired the book himself, apart from Darlington. Either way, Stevens’ seeks refuge in his Lord for the moment, borrowing the tastes and prejudices of his Lord in order to defend himself.
SK: How should I know?… What is it? Let me see it. Let me see your book.
In her first question, which Thompson asks so nonchalantly, she reveals the chasm which separates men from women in Darlington’s house. Kenton has a much different, if not considerably lower opinion of Darlington, and the idea that men— even aristocrats— should keep racy books on their shelves does not seem particularly surprising. How should she know if he keeps racy books on his shelves? She never looks through his shelves. Perhaps the question is also an oblique complaint about how hard she works; when she finds Stevens’ reading, she is in the middle of her chores.
As she demands to see the book, Hopkins first holds the book away from himself and from Kenton, then draws it near himself. He backs further and further away from her, although Hopkins grants a very slight smile, even as he is backed into a corner. He is surprised that his own physical presence should be so dominated by a woman, surprised by Kenton’s sudden, unprecedented tenacity, but also delighted that Miss Kenton should care so much as to accost him, to draw near him.
JS: Please leave me alone.
He does not protest too much.
SK: Why won’t you show me your book?
There is genuine confusion brewing in Miss Kenton’s mind. She initially thought she knew why he would not show her, although new possibilities have opened up which she will shortly explore.
JS: This is my private time. You’re invading it.
Stevens dramatically overstates the case; while he was content to have Kenton enter without knocking to give him a present, he all of a sudden claims she has “invaded” his life when his autonomy is challenged.
SK: Oh, is that so?
Kenton asks the question coyly, as though she does not believe Stevens could possibly be serious; she likely believes this is finally the flirtation which will culminate in a kiss. The two draw closer and closer together over a discreet matter, and Kenton seems convinced Stevens is playing a game in order to physically bring her near. At this point, Stevens himself is not entirely sure how the interaction will end, as he is still trying to decide whether to reveal the book or not.
SK: I’m invading your private time, am I?
The teasing aspect of the dialog heightens our sense that they flirting with one another. Until this point, directed James Ivory has trained the camera on Hopkins, whose slowly falling expression suggests he wants something he isn’t prepared to take, or that he is too afraid to surrender to Miss Kenton, or that this is the wrong point on which to surrender to her. Finally, the perspective switches and we see Emma Thompson’s face at just the point when flirtation seizes up and becomes honest inquisition. No more rhetorical questions, which weren’t eliciting the reactions she hoped for.
SK: What’s in that book? Come on, let me see.
The way the second demand is uttered her has a reassuring quality to it, as though Kenton expects the worst and wants to persuade Stevens in advance that she will not judge him harshly. She speaks to him desperately, not as a mother who wants a boy to show her what the child has hidden behind his back, but with a true sense of helplessness. If he utterly refuses to show her the book, she will be far more devastated than were he to show her the book and it prove racy. If he finally refuses to show her, she will know he does not trust her, or does not want her to see the secret things of his life, which means he does not love her either.
SK: Or are you protecting me? Is that what you’re doing? Would I be shocked? Would it ruin my character?
She assumes, for the moment, that Stevens will not let her see the book and she immediately begins rationalizing his decision. He loves her and his protecting her, her virtue, her sense of shame. Men dabble in racy things, but women ought not pry into those things. She knows her place. The final question is asked separately from the other questions, and for a moment, Kenton begins to wonder if, as opposed to some soft core nonsense, Stevens might have 120 Days of Sodom or Justine in hand. The sadness in her voice betrays her realization that a “racy book” might not be as innocent as she previously imagined. She begins to imagine the worst.
SK: Let me see it.
As soon as Kenton says this, Hopkins lifts a hand to his face, an ambiguous gesture, although one I find to be contemplative. He has not yet made up his mind to let her see the book. The decision is a profoundly difficult one. If he does not let her see the book, based on the tone of her final question, she is liable to suspect he actually reads horrific, pornographic literature. If he lets her see the book, she will know his question earlier about Darlington keeping “racy books” on his shelves was a lie, for Darlington no more keeps racy books as silly romances laying around the library. She will also know he is embarrassed to show her he enjoys sentimental things, which greatly damages the possibility he could ever share a sentimental moment with her.
As Miss Kenton tries to pry the book from his fingers, Hopkins plays out Mr. Stevens’ conflicted feelings for her as a bodily contradiction; his eyes are lively and longingly transfixed on her face, and yet his fingers close around the book as though rigor mortis has set in.
SK: Oh, dear. It’s not scandalous at all. It’s just a sentimental old love story.
Miss Kenton is confused. The book is neither mildly racy, not composed by the Marquis de Sade. What Stevens has hidden from her is something common, romantic love, although he treats the subject as though it were blue. At the 2:11 mark, Stevens moves his hand away from his face, and Ivory angles the shot such that Stevens might be about to caress Miss Kenton’s face and pull her lips towards his own. But the hands rests there, and Stevens rests, as well.
JS: Yes. I read these books… any books… to develop my command and knowledge of the English language. I read to further my education, Miss Kenton.
These sound like lines borrowed from Lord Darlington. They are lies, as well. If Stevens’ real interest were command of the English language, he would have chosen something more sophisticated than a “sentimental old love story,” the kind of which is of such unknown quality that Kenton does not even recognize the title or author, but must flip through several pages before generically identifying the book.
As Stevens defends his choice of reading material, Miss Kenton continues to stare into his eyes, waiting for the rouse to be revealed. She waits for him to reveal the true reason he reads sentimental old love stories, and that is to live vicariously through the characters whose lives are not so weighed down by an idolatrous commitment to work, as is his own life. Stevens cares about nothing more than work, although we often sense he wishes it were possible to escape the prison of his own religious devotion to labor, to the state.
SK: I really must ask you, please… not to disturb the few moments I have to myself.
Only after the final petition does Emma Thompson lower her eyes, aware that the flirtation was not mutual, and that no kiss is coming.
Ivory then zooms out with Miss Kenton as she departs quickly, leaving Stevens alone in the corner, flanked by red-flowered curtains and confronted by Kenton’s red flower gift. While Stevens makes a play for power and austerity against Miss Kenton, Ivory shows him imprisoned by signs of the love he refused, lurking in the shadows.