October 29, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

What with Howards End, The Age of Innocence, and now a rapturouslypleasing Merchant Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s sublime 1989novel, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (PG), it’s clear we’re enjoying arenaissance of what used to be known-derisively, in some circles-asthe Masterpiece Theatre school of dramatic refinement. Why thistriumphant reversion to a cinema of manicured lawns, impeccablediction, and courtly love? To a degree, it reflects the middlebrownostalgia for beauty and order, for an era when civilization wastruly civilized. Yet something deeper may be at work. The charactersin all these films are united by a passionate refusal to expresstheir feelings directly. Their words, however eloquent, remain anintricate subterfuge, a form of emotional hieroglyphics. And thatelusivenan speak volumes in an era when people have unlimited freedomto say what’s on their minds. These movies, through their veryindirection, recapture some of the mysteries of human interaction.Certainly it would be hard to think of a character who shrouds histhoughts in silkier layers of euphemism than Mr. Stevens (AnthonyHopkins), the ironic hero of The Remains of the Day. Stevens is thatoddball creature, a butler-a – great butler. For nearly 30 years, hedevotes every waking moment to the service of Lord Darlington (JamesFox), an aristocrat with connections to the highest echelons ofBritish politics. At Darlington Hall, a stone country manor the sizeof a small palace, Stevens organizes his staff like a general,keeping the servant troops in line and orchestrating dinner partiesas though they were epic battles. In essence, though, he remains aselfless man, motivated by an almost childlike belief in thespiritual superiority of his employer. That’s the basis of Stevens’existence: that by dedicating his life to the service of LordDarlington (and the higher causes he represents), he may, in somesmall way, achieve ”dignity”-a butler’s Zenlike ability to keephimself emotionally removed from whatever situation he’s in, all inthe cause of providing perfect service to a great man.As Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins gave aperformance of majestic intensity and wit, turning the homicidalgenius into a voracious, all-knowing guru, a guy who’d scarf yourliver and your soul along with it. Now he goes in the oppositedirection. Stevens, unlike the loquacious cannibal, reveals almostnothing, yet Hopkins uses his dancing eyes, puckish smile, and broadphysique to give the character ironic undercurrents of virility andstrength. The exquisite poignancy of this performance is thatStevens, as Hopkins plays him, is neither a weakling nor the sort ofrepressed mannequin that, say, Jeremy Irons would have made him.Soft-spoken and observant, he has simply kept his will-his soul-underwraps for so long that the very notion that his own thoughts anddesires could have intrinsic value is alien to him. He’s living inprison, only he doesn’t know it.The story, told in flashback, is set mostly between the worldwars, during which two developments, one political and one personal,threaten to undermine Stevens’ life of radiant serenity and order.During a series of diplomaticretreats, Lord Darlington attempts to convince variousinternational representatives that the Germans should now be let offthe hook for World War I. This appeasement policy is presented as anoutgrowth of Darlington’s idealism, the very quality that Stevensreveres in him. The world, however, is changing; what once lookedlike nobility and trust has become a dangerous form of naivete.Slyly, the movie raises the question, If Darlington is an innocentstooge, what does that say about his butler? The Remains of the Dayat once salutes and indicts the tradition of servitude that runsthrough the English character. The movie reveals a subtle continuitybetween Stevens’ obsessive dedication to Darlington and Darlington’sbowing and scraping before the Germans.If Stevens’ folly is one of blind trust, his tragedy is that hecan’t trust his instincts. That’s especially true with regard to MissKenton (Emma Thompson), the lonely housekeeper who develops a quietfascination with him. The subliminal flirtations in this relationshipmake the one in The Age of Innocence look like something out of aporn film. In a series of funny and moving scenes, Stevens and MissKenton are united by their mutual irritation with each other. After awhile, though, Miss Kenton, sensing there’s much more to herdiffident employer than she may have realized, attempts to pokethrough his facade, only to encounter more facade. Thompson isactually somewhat miscast here: She’s too vibrant and forceful apresence to play such a fragile blossom. The wonder of the movie isthe way that Hopkins, through the soft light in his eyes, lets usknow that Stevens is stirred by Miss Kenton in ways he could neverdare admit. In the end, he attains his dignity, serving everyone buthimself. A-

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