A first-class tale of British angst, Remains of the Day stars Emma Thompson as veteran housekeeper Miss Kenton and Anthony Hopkins as the fanatically devoted butler, Mr. Stevens. The film centers around the lives of these two capable servants and their great love-affair-that-should-have-been. Throughout the film, Stevens and Miss Kenton maintain a powerful attraction towards each other that is never acted on. Both servants are entirely devoted to their master, Lord Darlington, at the expense of any sort of personal lives of their own. In one heartbreaking scene, Mr. Stevens goes so far as to ignore his dying father (who serves as an underbutler at Darlington Hall) in favor of managing the details of a massive dinner party going on in another part of the house. “My father would have wanted me to go about my work,” he tells a stunned Miss Kenton, who keeps watch at his father's side throughout the night.
Their self-sacrifice is made even more poignant because the two cannot even have the satisfaction of serving a good man. The film chronicles the political activities of German sympathizer Lord Darlington throughout the 1930s. His chronically misguided actions are instrumental in bringing about the disastrous appeasement between Britain and Germany that would later lead directly to World War Two. The exact nature of Lord Darlington's feelings is as ambiguous as those of Stevens and Kenton for each other. Darlington is a doting master to his servants who quickly falls under the spell of fascist dogma.
This dichotomy is most noticeable in his interactions with two German maids. He is fascinated by them and frequently interrupts their work to practice German with them, but immediately demands that Stevens fire them after learning the girls are Jewish. Stevens, in a rare moment of rebellion, initially resists the order (while far from sentimental, he is capable of recognizing good workers when he sees them), but quickly backs down, his good intentions overrun by a lifetime of habitually deferring to his master.
Darlington eventually dies, heartbroken and alone, considered a traitor by the British public. In his later years, Stevens is so ashamed of his service to Lord Darlington that he denies even knowing the man.
This shame finally prompts Stevens to begin questioning his fanatical devotion to his profession and in one of the film's early scenes, Stevens asks for a few days off from his new employer, a relatively straightforward request that he never would have considered in his days under Lord Darlington. He uses the time to travel across England in order to reunite with Miss Kenton (now a divorcee) and ask her to re-enter service at his side. Their years together are told through long flashbacks, narrated through letters from Miss Kenton to Stevens, who re-reads them compulsively during the course of his journey.
Heartbreakingly, the two do not manage to reunite permanently. Miss Kenton's former husband shows up at the most inopportune of moments to inform her that their daughter is expecting their first grandchild. Overwhelmed by the news, Miss Kenton once again eschews a life with the unreachable Stevens in favor of a chance at an emotional connection with her grandchild.
The two do manage to get together for lunch, where they have a gut-wrenching dialogue in which they continue to dance around their around their feelings for each other. "No one needs me as much as he does," Miss Kenton says, about her husband. An immediate close-up on Stevens' face shows that he begs to differ, but won't, largely because he doesn't know how.
Remains of the Day probably won't appeal to hopeless romantics. Instead, it's a powerful statement on the ways in which repressed feelings can overshadow an entire lifetime and on the complex workings of inner lives and private desires.