1993, UK-USA, 134 min.
James Stevens’ (Anthony Hopkins) stoic devotion makes him an exemplary butler. That trait wobbles with the arrival of young, new housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), whose affection for the middle-aged Stevens grows over the years. Director James Ivory’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is unsparing in its lack of romanticism—the scenery is all rigid formality; the camerawork, all shadows—making the pair’s evolving relationship deceptively taboo. Stevens is so driven to follow his code of conduct that he sees Kenton as a threat, instead of a possible salvation from his self-imposed stifling. The film reveals that a lifetime of following orders has an unsettling impact. Stevens’ quiet grace may be an asset at dowdy, Nazi-sympathizing Darlington Hall, but it isolates him from the outside world—and his own happiness. Ivory doesn’t announce all of that, but discerning viewers will recognize the very real benefits of listening to our emotions at any age.