Remains of the Day, The

Is Anthony Hopkins the best screen actor in the Western world today

Hopkins made an indelible impression, reaching his widest audience to date, as the brilliant serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (l990), for which he won a much deserved Oscar Award. He is not only one of the most respected performers in the world, but also one of the busiest. In times of declining film production, the British actor boasted a striking record of no less than four movies in l992: Howards End, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Chaplin, and The Efficiency Expert.

Graduating from one of England' best acting schools, RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), Hopkins belongs to a rare breed of actors who have left their mark on virtually every medium: theatre, film, and television. He has won just about every award an actor can win. His TV work has earned him two Emmy Awards: for his role as Bruno Hauptmann in The Lindbergh Kidnapping, and as Adolph Hitler in The Bunker. For David Hare's intriguing play, Pravda, which I happened to see in London, Hopkins won the Laurence Olivier Award. In l987, he was awarded the prestigious “Commander of the Order” of the British Empire.

Hopkins gives such a superlative, deceptively effortless, performance in the new Ismail Merchant-James Ivory social-class drama, The Remains of the Day that, if all goes well, he should earn yet another Oscar nomination.

The film itself is good, if also flawed. The sentimental and anti-climactic ending doesn't do justice to the rich and complex narrative that precedes it. But overall, the film contains so many excellent elements that it deserves to be seen on the big screen. An epic historical drama, Remains of the Day may not be as lush and sumptuous as Martin Scorsese's imperfect Age of Innocence, but it's far more satisfying–and resonant–emotionally and intellectually.

The movie reteams the two Oscar-winners, Hopkins and Emma Thompson, fresh from last year's hit Howards End. But if Howards End was Thompson's film by the size and magnitude of her role, Remains of the Day belongs to Hopkins, from the very first frame all the way to its last.

Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's l989 novel, and adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, it's a tale of the British upper- class in the l930s, the fateful decade between the two major wars. What makes the story fascinating is that the hero, Stevens (Hopkins) is a devoted butler whose veneration of and service orientation to his masters literally dominate–and later destroy–his personal life. Emma Thompson plays Miss Kenton, a maid hired by Hopkins and the only spirited person who has the audacity to challenge and bring to the surface the tensions and problems of being servants.

The film's structure, which consists of lengthy flashbacks and narration of exchanged letters, is at times awkward. But, as always, Merchant-Ivory's attention to detail is meticulous, piercing, and poignant. For example, we do get all the nuances of feeling (overt and covert racism) in a scene where Thompson is asked to fire two Jewish maids. At first, she protests, but realizing she's powerless and without a choice she complies. It's a crucial scene, because it shows the price paid for a total, blind, uncritical conformity to decorum and norms.

Space is too short to elaborate on the differences between the class system in England and in the U.S. But judging from popular culture (literature, films, TV programs), class membership and class orientation are much stronger in Britain, where there are far less opportunities for upward mobility. One of the most touching sub-plots of Remains of the Day is the relationship between Hopkins and his father (played to perfection by Peter Vaughan), a man who insists on carrying on all his duties up until his death. In what may not be comprehensible to some Americans, Hopkins' father is actually proud of his position, which also suggests why the British class structure has been rigid and so slow in changing. It's not just the domination of the upper class that counts, it's also the absolute acceptance of the servants of their own inferior positions.

Always engaging, if sometimes old-fashioned, Remains of the Day offers insightful observations about the everyday life and interaction between lords and servants, an interaction which is largely determined by official norms, but also allows for some flexibility and deviation, based on long-term familiarity. In one of the story's lighter moments, Hopkins is assigned by Lord Darlington (James Fox) to help his son come of age, specifically in the sexual domain. The strategy that Hopkins chooses is hilarious, but I don't want to spoil the fun.

Set on a large estate, Remains of the Day also offers fascinating notions about the personal, behind-the-scenes dimensions of high-level politics. Observing a 1939 political conference hosted by Darlington, the film shows most concretely how crucial political decisions are made and how the fear of–and fascination with–Hitler led to some disastrous results. It's like scrutinizing history from a distance and from backstage, the kitchen and the servants' areas, where most of the action takes place.