‘The Remains Of The Day’ (1993): A Portrayal Of Fascism In England Today?

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The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Yesterday the BBC broadcast The Remains of the Day (1993) adapted from the brilliant Booker Prize-winning 1989 novel of the same name, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It has become one of my favourite films now but that has not always been the case.

My first experience with this movie was when I was no more than about 25 years old and a huge fan of science fiction and those iconic movies of the late 1970s and 1980s such as Blade Runner, Alien — and its nearly as good sequel Aliens — Star Wars and Predator. I was unable to see the attraction and critical acclaim of this very limited and claustrophobic world of servants and masters in pre-World War Two England.

It was too much of a culture shock to go from an outer space and mind-blowing near-future time into a claustrophobic — almost incestuous — class-based, inner space, of privilege and time almost standing still by holding fast to its political atavism. I was no political virgin. My political awareness was developed but I just could not at the time find anything to pull me into the political and ideological concerns of the film.

But as we get older we change and we learn and we experience more. And on my second ever viewing I began to see the absolute genius of the film and the content which was not only relevant historically but became even more relevant as a scorching hot and searing indictment of those in power in the 1930s since the 1950s and those who have held power in England for the last 14 years. And of course not just in England. Wherever there is the abuse of power by the already entitled class this film will hit home, hard.

If I were teaching modern history and/or politics I would make reading the book and watching the film (either/or) a set part of my curriculum. This would be the very foundation of my course on the perversion of patriotism that creates the fertile breeding ground for the rise of fascism particularly in liberal democracies.

The film was directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant, Mike Nichols, and John Calley, and adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It stars Anthony Hopkins as Mr. (James) Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton, with James Fox, Christopher Reeve, and a very young Hugh Grant, Ben Chaplin, and an even younger-looking Lena Headey in supporting roles.

It is as far from Downton Abbey as you can get without leaving the loci and milieu that Downton Abbey is set within. It is a tour de force of moral and ethical philosophy set within the entitled aristocracy of pre-World War Two England, of manners and political chicanery; where world affairs are discussed over a dinner table with the best food and wine to be found anywhere in this world of plenty and privilege and decisions of world historical importance are made over cigars and brandy. Little has changed in England even though Sunak likes to play at being the common man.

It was a box-office and critical success and was nominated for eight Academy Awards but won not a single one. It did — unsurprisingly — win Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins — now of course a knight of the realm — at the BAFTA ceremony that same year. His performance is an absolute masterclass in acting. And it is he who is central to the film. It can be said that everything revolves around Mr. Stevens and his moral and existential emptiness.

Why should this matter? Well, that’s what I shall attempt to show and show that his character is what allows bad and evil actions to be implemented and to proceed without any accountability. Mr. Stevens is a dangerous individual. Mr Stevens is an enabler of fascism as he questions nothing he is ordered to do.

In 1958 in post-war Britain, a flashback shows Miss Kenton’s arrival at Darlington Hall, as a housekeeper in the 1930s. The ever-efficient butler to the Earl of Darlington, Mr. Stevens, manages the household well and prides himself in and derives his entire identity from this class-based profession.

Miss Kenton, equally invaluable, efficient, and strong-willed, is warmer and less repressed. They occasionally butt heads, particularly over Stevens’s father, now an under-butler, who is failing and no longer able to perform his duties, which Stevens refuses to see. He displays total ‘professionalism’ by carrying on as his father lies dying and dies.

I call this existential emptiness. It is of course part of the theme that the film portrays that following rules without question or query has dangerous consequences for everyone even in the best aristocratic houses of England.

Meanwhile, Darlington Hall is often frequented by politicians, most of whom are like-minded, Nazi-sympathizing British and European aristocrats, except for Congressman Lewis, who disagrees with Lord Darlington (James Fox) and his guests. Later, the aristocratic guest Spencer directs a series of political and economic questions to Stevens, who fails to answer.

Spencer claims that this shows the working-class are politically ignorant — without any worthy opinion and therefore only to be told what to think and what to do like slaves— saying “Q.E.D” to his mocking aristocratic audience. The upper classes are therefore entitled to ignore them (the majority hoi polloi) completely and rule the country in the way they — the minority decide.

Mr. Stevens is used to illustrate Spencer’s elitist political posturing. Spencer is of course on the wrong side of history now but at the time democracy was in great peril from the elites and their chosen representatives, Moseley, Lord Halifax, Mussolini, and Hitler. And we have come full circle. The film resonates so much more now politically than it ever did in 1993. John Major who was British PM from 1993–1997 was no fascist threat to democracy like those of the same Party and a few who now inhabit the halls of Westminster.

One senses Steven’s embarrassment and his awareness that he is being deliberately embarrassed to prove a point. Hopkins shows us this with great acting skill, the eyes, the looks, and the pauses. Just enough, not too much. Stevens will not show his true feelings. But is this because he knows that he does not know any of the answers or is it because he is fully accepting of the status quo — Them and Us‘ — and the hereditary and natural order of — pre-WW2 — Masters and Servants?

The brilliance of his performance and the film is that both are true and can be accepted by us the viewer without any damage to narrative self-consistency and the self-consistency of Mr. Stevens as a human being.

Yet we are appalled at Mr. Steven’s treatment. But this is still the attitude of many in the upper echelons of society. And we are now a hundred years on from the scene in the film. How depressing is that? But this does not only pertain to class or the English class system. It also frequently occurs in relevance to skin colour and the lower IQ of ethnic minorities that is frequently aired at regular intervals, by white supremacists and incendiary pseudoscientists.

We need Mr. Stevens to react. But he does not. He is just as polite and controlled as if he were merely serving drinks to these upstanding, cultured, “great gentlemen” (sic). Without a response, this very serious political position of entitled elitism — and white Western cultural elitist supremacy — goes unanswered and is enabled. Fascism is enabled.

From this position, it is but a short step to fascism. The real Oswald Moseley typifies the fictional characters shown in the film. As it was we are shown a secret meeting between the PM Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary (Lord)Halifax, and the German Ambassador Ribbentrop at Darlington Hall seeking appeasement and peace for Nazi Germany.

Stevens is aware of the secret nature of the meeting and is confronted by a member of the family Cardinal, now a reporter (Hugh Grant). Stevens pretends to know nothing about those involved or their discussions. Grant is frightfully polite but still is pretty shocked. So are we all. Of course, he knows. But for evil to triumph good men must do nothing. And this is Mr. Stevens doing nothing. Doing nothing and/or being silent is complicity.

In the midst of those events, and after exposure to Nazi racial laws, Darlington suddenly tells Stevens to dismiss the two newly appointed, refugee German-Jewish maids. However, he does question why but it is only upon the basis of standards of work not on any serious moral outrage for his master’s (Darlington) antisemitism.

Miss Kenton threatens to resign. But the maids are dismissed and will have to return to Nazi Germany which is a death sentence. Had Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton both threatened to resign Darlington would likely have been forced to rescind his dismissal. Sense would have prevailed. And not senseless racism.

So prejudice and bigotry continue but now it has come to an important political part of England without being contested or challenged by those who could have had they been united in a proto-political affirmation. But the class system overwhelms and undermines this moral challenge.

En route to meeting Miss Kenton in 1958 — now Mrs Benn — in the borrowed Daimler of his new employer Mr. Farraday, Stevens’ car breaks down and he is helped by Dr. Carlisle to obtain petrol, and as they return in the car he correctly establishes Stevens’s identity.

Dr. Carlisle asks Stevens what he thought about Lord Darlington’s actions. At first, denying having even met him, he later admits to having served and respected him. He states that it was not his place to either approve or disapprove, as he was merely a butler. He, however, confirms that Darlington admitted that his Nazi sympathies were misguided and he had been too naïve.

Lord Darlington was unable to correct his terrible error, but he was now en route to correcting his own of letting Miss Kenton leave. The excuse that Mr. Stevens gives to Dr. Carlisle in the car is the Nuremberg Defence or Superior orders and that he as Lord Darlington’s butler with no power was just following orders.

One of the most noted uses of this plea, or defense, was by the accused in the 1945–1946 Nuremberg trials, such that it is called the “Nuremberg defense“. The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals, held by the main victorious Allies after World War II, most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of defeated Nazi Germany. These trials, under the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal that established them, determined that the defence of superior orders was no longer enough to escape punishment, but merely enough to lessen the punishment.

Miss Kenton declines the offer to return to Darlington Hall and we finish the film back at Darlington Hall where Mr. Stevens is now looking after Congressman Lewis (Christopher Reeve) who has bought the property. A bird becomes trapped in the hall and both men help to release it.

Lewis is reminiscing but Mr. Stevens remembers nothing as he states he was “too busy“. It was a similar defense put forward by the ex-PM Boris Johnson to justify the breaking of the law in No 10 when multiple parties were being held during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 and 2021.

Nothing has changed except for the class of the person excusing themselves from knowledge of and awareness of criminal wrongdoing and in Steven’s fictional case the knowledge of traitorous crimes that did — in a not dissimilar fashion — take place.

For me, those who do nothing are just as culpable as those directly involved. Mr. Stevens represents the enablers of not just fascism but any ideological evil that is allowed to grow within any society such as racism or antisemitism or any bigoted, prejudiced behaviour, without challenges.

Such class-based affiliations and connections still exist today in 2024 and this is why the film and book will resonate every time you watch it. The class war in England in 2024 is — unfortunately — alive and well and the threat of the fascist control of England creeps further and further over the land strangling its hard-won freedoms and ancient liberties. The Labour Party under Mr Stevens has become another fascist enabler.

Sadie Seroxcat

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