Looks like it's official: Repression is this year's Big Theme. The Age of Innocence, based on Edith Wharton's novel, was great stuff if you're into movies that revel in period detail, subtle wordplay, unconsummated passion, and meticulous manners. But that film's leading man, torn between his affection for a proper but boring fiancee and his passion for a scandalous outsider, was a veritable devil-may-care action hero compared to Mr. Stevens, the anal-retentive butler at the center of Remains of the Day.
The loyal servant, played to sublime, stoic, bullet-headed, pinch-nosed perfection by Anthony Hopkins, is so repressed he calls his own father Mr. Stevens, and insists that the rest of his staff do so as well. (He's hired the old man on as his assistant.) The butler runs the show at Darlington Hall, a stately mansion in the English countryside whose tranquility and palatial charm make it a perfect place for Lord Darlington to lobby world leaders; he's a gentleman from the old school and one of the leading proponents of appeasement toward Germany in the years leading up to World War II. "Let them know that in England, order and tradition still prevail," Lord Darlington instructs his butler.
Stevens's unflagging commitment to that ideal costs him his one shot at true love. Emma Thompson plays the role of the housekeeper who almost succeeds in melting Stevens's glacial reserve. (In doing so, she completes the Howards End reunion that, like last year's adaption of the E.M. Forster novel, teams Hopkins and Thompson with producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.) Thompson's work here, while not her best, is still inspired; it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. If she hasn't already, Thompson will soon eclipse Meryl Streep as the film community's leading "serious" actress. (Much Ado About Nothing would have been just that without her.)
But for all the pedigrees behind the cameras and all the first-rate performances in front of them, The Remains of the Day fails to rise above the level of a well-made, cerebral character study. Like Darlington Hall, the film is handsome and dignified and characterized by superb craftsmanship. Like protagonist Stevens, however, it has difficulty bridging the gap between thinking and feeling. You can't argue with their logic, and you admire their skill and attention to detail, but in the end you wish that both the butler and the film had managed to make more of an impact on the heart.