Synopsis: The Remains of the Day is a profoundly compelling portrait of the perfect English butler and of his fading, insular world postwar England. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive, during which he looks back over his career to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving “a great gentleman.” But lurking in his memory are doubts about the true nature of Lord Darlington’s “greatness” and graver doubts about his own faith in the man he served.
Texting with friends after the most recent episode of Downton Abbey, we all agreed the best part of the lackluster installment was Mrs. Hughes, Carson and the toaster. In fact, of the story lines in season three, the only one with real stakes – literal and emotional – is Mrs. Hughes’s cancer scare. For me, it is difficult to care overly much about a rich family having to live in a smaller manor house, a rich man having the option to refuse a legacy and problems with the mail for an inmate. The real stakes, the ones the three of us care about, are whether or not Carson and Mrs Hughes will relieve all their UST.
C: When is the sexual tension with them going to end?
CH: I know it’s like he’s the pope. Kiss already.
Me: Never. They’re like Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day.
Of course, that spurred me to read the novel, something I’ve been meaning to do for years now. Though I haven’t seen the movie in years, it is the type of movie that stays with you and, reading the novel, I was struck with how it was probably the easiest screenplay to write in the history of movies. Scenes and conversations were lifted from it word for word, action for action. As it should have. Ishiguro’s novel is a masterpiece of showing instead of telling. Of how to write subtext. Of character development. Of putting the most emotion, information and action in the fewest words. (A lesson I sorely need to learn.) Like all good love stories (and I believe love is the heart of the book) the ending is bittersweet. Any other ending would have rang false.
At the beginning, Stevens does go on a little too long about the role of a butler and “dignity.” While it might come across as dry, stilted and boring, it is an important piece of establishing Stevens as a character who is, unsurprisingly, dry, stilted, boring and confined by the very characteristic (dignity) he tries so hard to define. Once Stevens starts reminiscing, though, the story takes off and the pages fly by.
If you read The Remains of the Day as a fan of Downton Abbey you will think, “Carson and Mrs. Hughes are nothing like Stevens and Miss Kenton.” You are right. Carson is more personable and Mrs. Hughes is more proper (she would never invade Carson’s personal space to pry a book out of his hand) and they are both more aware of and open with their affection for the other. But, their openness is still highly restrained, so much so it is only evident to the viewer (and Mrs. Patmore, I suppose), which is the key. I’m a sucker for romance so a part of me wants them to fall in love and be happy! But, I believe they are both happy with the relationship they have now. That for it to become anything else would be improper and would, quite possibly, affect their duties to the family and to Downton. This would be an anathema to professionals like Carson and Mrs. Hughes, especially Carson who values the family above all else. Which is why they bring The Remains of the Day to mind. Carson and Mrs. Hughes may have a deep affection for each other, but it will never overshadow their professionalism.
Of course, I would love to be wrong.