In 1950s post-war Britain, Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, receives a letter from Miss Kenton, a recently divorced former work colleague employed as the housekeeper some twenty years earlier. Lord Darlington has died a broken man, his reputation destroyed after he was exposed as a Nazi sympathizer, and his stately country manor has been sold to a retired United States Congressman, Mr Lewis. Stevens is granted permission to borrow his Daimler, and he sets off to the West Country to meet Miss Kenton.
The film flashes back to Kenton's arrival as housekeeper in the 1930s. The ever efficient Stevens manages the household well, taking great pride in his profession, and his dedication is fully displayed when, while his father lies dying, he steadfastly continues his duties. Kenton, too, proves to be a valuable servant, and she is equally efficient and strong-willed, but also warmer and less repressed. Relations between the two eventually warm, and it becomes clear that she has feelings for him, yet despite their proximity and shared purpose, Stevens' detachment remains unchanged. Eventually, she forms a relationship with a former co-worker and leaves the house prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Before she resigns, Stevens finds her crying in frustration, but the only response he can muster is to call her attention to a neglected domestic task.
Meanwhile, the hall is regularly frequented by politicians of the interwar period, and many of Lord Darlington's guests are like-minded British and European aristocrats, with the exception of Congressman Lewis. Darlington later also meets Prime Minister Chamberlain and the German Ambassador, and uses his influence to try to broker a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany, based on his belief that Germany had been unfairly treated by the Treaty of Versailles following the First World War. In the midst of these events, one day Darlington suddenly requests that two newly appointed German-Jewish maids, both refugees, should be dismissed. Stevens carries out the command, and Kenton threatens resignation in protest, but she is too timid to do so.
En route to meeting Kenton, when asked about his former employer, Stevens at first denies having served or even met him, but later admits to having served and respected him. He meets Kenton (now Mrs Benn), and they reminisce, but she declines Stevens' offer to return to Darlington Hall, wishing instead to remain near her pregnant daughter. After the meeting, Kenton is emotional, while Stevens is still unable to demonstrate any feeling. Back in Darlington Hall, Lewis asks Stevens if he remembers much of the old days, to which Stevens replies that he was too busy serving. Symbolically, a pigeon then becomes trapped in the hall, and the two men eventually free it, leaving both Stevens and Darlington Hall far behind.
A film adaptation of the novel was originally planned to be directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Harold Pinter. Some of Pinter's script was used in the film, but, while Pinter was paid for his work, he asked to have his name removed from the credits, in keeping with his contract. Christopher C. Hudgins observes: "During our 1994 interview, Pinter told [Steven H.] Gale and me that he had learned his lesson after the revisions imposed on his script for The Handmaid's Tale, which he has decided not to publish. When his script for The Remains of the Day was radically revised by the James Ivory-Ismail Merchant partnership, he refused to allow his name to be listed in the credits" (125).
Though no longer the director, Nichols remained associated with the project as one of the producers of the Merchant Ivory film.
A number of English country estates were used as locations for the film, partly owing to the persuasive power of Ismail Merchant, who was able to cajole permission for the production to borrow various houses not normally open to the public. Among them was Dyrham Park for the exterior of the house and the driveway, Powderham Castle (staircase, hall, music room, bedroom), the interior of which was used for the aqua-turquoise stairway scenes, Corsham Court (library and dining room) and Badminton House (servants' quarters, conservatory, entrance hall). Luciana Arrighi, the production designer, scouted most of these locations. Scenes were also shot in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, which stood in for Clevedon. The pub, where Mr Stevens stays, is the Hop Pole in Limpley Stoke; the shop featured is also in Limpley Stoke. The pub where Miss Kenton and Mr Benn meet is the George Inn, Norton St Philip.
The character of Sir Geoffrey Wren is based loosely on that of Sir Oswald Mosley, a British fascist active in the 1930s. Wren is depicted as a strict vegetarian, mimicking the diet of his idol, Adolf Hitler.
Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax also appears in the film. Lord Darlington tells Stevens that Halifax approved of the polish on the silver, and Halifax himself later appears when Darlington meets secretly with the German Ambassador and his aides at night. Halifax was a chief architect of the British policy of appeasement from 1937 to 1939.
The original score is composed by Richard Robbins. The score was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, losing to the score of Schindler's List.Track listing
- Opening Titles, Darlington Hall - 7:27
- The Keyhole and the Chinaman - 4:14
- Tradition and Order - 1:51
- The Conference Begins - 1:33
- Sei Mir Gegrüsst (Schubert) - 4:13
- The Cooks in the Kitchen - 1:34
- Sir Geoffrey Wren and Stevens, Sr. - 2:41
- You Mean a Great Deal to This House - 2:21
- Loss and Separation - 6:19
- Blue Moon - 4:57
- Sentimental Love Story/Appeasement/In the Rain - 5:22
- A Portrait Returns/Darlington Hall/End Credits - 6:54
Critical reception and awards
The film received a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a site that tracks film reviews posted by both critics and audiences; its consensus states: "Smart, elegant, and blessed with impeccable performances from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, The Remains of the Day is a Merchant-Ivory classic." Roger Ebert particularly praised the film and called it "a subtle, thoughtful movie." In his review for The Washington Post, Desson Howe gave the film a favorable review, and said of it "Put Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and James Fox together and you can expect sterling performances," praising their work in the film. Vincent Canby of The New York Times said, in another favorable review, "Here's a film for adults. It's also about time to recognize that Mr Ivory is one of our finest directors, something that critics tend to overlook because most of his films have been literary adaptations." The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but won none:
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
Gale, Steven H. Sharp Cut: Harold Pinter's Screenplays and the Artistic Process. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
Gale, Steven H., ed. The Films of Harold Pinter. Albany: SUNY Press, 2001.
Hudgins, Christopher C. "Harold Pinter's Lolita: 'My Sin, My Soul'." In The Films of Harold Pinter. Steven H. Gale, ed. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2001.
Hudgins, Christopher C. "Three Unpublished Harold Pinter Filmscripts: The Handmaid's Tale, The Remains of the Day, Lolita." The Pinter Review: Nobel Prize / Europe Theatre Prize Volume: 2005 - 2008. Francis Gillen with Steven H. Gale, eds. Tampa, Fla.: University of Tampa Press, 2008.
The film is also recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: