THE MASTERPIECE OF PRODUCER ISMAIL MERCHANT AND DIRECTOR IVORY
Memories both good and bad light up what yet remains of the day. This is the story of how a man finds comfort in remembering what he has achieved, and what he has lost.
There are two parallel developments throughout the film: in the first we see Lord Darlington (James Fox) use his wealth and position to try and soften the resentment that Germany feels over the harsh Treaty of Versailles, only for him to be disillusioned in the end. The second concerns a romance between two of the servants at the house (Hopkins as Stevens the butler and Thompson as Kenton the housekeeper).
Darlington is convinced that more damage has been done since the war than during it, and that the situation will inevitably give rise to another war unless something is done to ameliorate Germany's position. His standards are the old fashioned ones of the English aristocracy: fair play, don't hit a man when he's down, and always act with honour. However he fails to understand that something has already been done to ameliorate the situation, and it's been done by a German, Adolf Hitler. And he believes Hitler. To be fair to Darlington, most of Europe before WWII believed Hitler (even his staunch opponent Winston Churchill was once a fan). At one point Darlington, who is a very kindly man, dismisses two Jewish refugees whom he has employed, simply because they are Jews. But it bothers him, and from that point of the film onwards, he begins to realise his mistake. During and after the war Darlington is hated as a Nazi sympathiser and collaborator, and it breaks him.
Darlington has gone through the same experience as Prince Salina in The Leopard. What we are seeing here is the values of one generation replacing those of another. Darlington's tragedy is that he has outlived his time. His values are sneered at, his position is no longer unquestioned. He doesn't know what to do when dealing with those who don't share his standards and culture. In a sense, worthy as he is, he's a dinosaur. It's a smaller age, when working men decide policy they know nothing about by voting in a general election, where the very people he is trying to aid treat him with contempt as a dupe ("we call them concentration camps, you call them prisons, but it's much the same").
The butler Stevens is a staunch defender of English class values of the period. He has built his life on the ideal of service, and as a more democratic age dawns, he has difficulty adapting to it. Stevens knows that order and dignity must prevail, that he has what amounts to a small army under his command, each of whom must know his duty and his place for the whole machine to function. Stevens' ally in this formidable task is Miss Kenton the housekeeper. From this alliance of two capable people flows the love story which is the second plot strand of the film.
Slowly Stevens loses faith in Darlington, the pivot of his order. Several times he denies knowing him. He sees the great house and its army of servants dismantled. New, more egalitarian times bring a new owner and a new master (in the film the American millionaire Lewis). Yet throughout Stevens keeps his feelings to himself. He is no more expressive. It is Kenton who makes all the moves in their romance. Stevens remains the passive subject of her decisions.
Now here is a difficult matter. Throughout the film we see Stevens tormented again and again at his inability to express his emotions (and a superb job of acting by Hopkins). We never know why. There is no indication in the film that Stevens considers his ideal of service as more important, or a substitute, for his emotional life (we are told his father worked as a butler, and yet he married). There are moments when the frustrations of both Stevens and Kenton are treated humorously by the film makers.
The motivation given for both Stevens and Darlington indicates a structural flaw in the film, its one weakness. We are given no clue for Stevens' silence about his feelings. And we are expected to feel it a weakness of Darlington to attempt to appease Hitler. But it is historically unlikely for him not to do so. At the time of Darlington's meetings Hitler was the elected Chancellor of Germany, not the Fuhrer. He hadn't put anyone in a concentration camp. He had published Mein Kampf in which he expressed incoherent theories about race that not many could understand (even, it is said, Hitler himself). He had made demands to take over part of Czechoslovakia to which Germany had a plausible right. He was shaping up as a strong man of Europe; many politicians were relieved to see him successful. It was a time when 'totalitarian' had no pejorative meaning. (There were only two ways to avoid the Hitler regime: a more lenient Treaty of Versailles which would have strengthened democratic government in Germany; or a declaration of war against Germany by America in 1932).
The film features some of the best acting in any film, not just from the principals but on the part of virtually every cast member. Merchant/Ivory are strong on casting. They say they build their films around it. Here it works. You won't see the kind of 'expert' acting that draws attention to itself; rather, you unhesitatingly believe every person is who they claim to be. Hopkins and Thompson are wonderful at expressing what each is feeling behind the conventional exchanges they manage to have. The set, the great house (houses, the film makers say) is perfectly convincing. The period detail is expertly done. One finds out more about how a great house was run in those days than you could ever expect to know (as one did about painting in The Girl with the Pearl Earring). Structurally, however, the parallel set up by Ishiguro concerning Darlington and Stevens and their inability to change with the times is not maintained and there is a mystery about Stevens' reticence about his feelings which stop his story from being the tragic one it might be.
James Stevens: "I don't believe a man can consider himself fully content until he has done all he can tto be of service to his employer".