“The Remains of the Day”: The Tragic Solution

This is the second of three articles comparing three films, It Can Happen to You (posted October, 2010), The Remains of the Day (posted November, 2010) and It’s a Wonderful Life (to be re-posted December, 2010)

Both It’s a Wonderful Life and It Could Happen to You provide us with gratifying fantasies that allow us to feel, through identification, that we have overcome our limitations.  George Bailey and Charlie the cop are trapped by circumstances and conscience.  George must overcome his idealization of his father and his reluctance to overcome his male rivals.  His father dies, his rivals step aside, and he becomes a hero to the town.  Charlie is trapped in a marriage to a woman he does not love by a conscience that will not allow him to be unfaithful.  The film allows him to leave his wife and to find the woman of his dreams without his ever having to cross the boundaries of his conscience.  There is another solution, the tragic solution.  In The Remains of the Day , Stevens the butler is trapped by his position and his idealization of his father and his employer.  He loves a woman, but unlike George Bailey he cannot pursue her and unlike Charlie the cop he does not have her thrown into his arms.  He remains hopelessly trapped by his circumstances and his character, and we, the viewers, are trapped vicariously with him.

Outwardly, this film looks miles apart from the other two.  It takes place in England shortly before and after World War II.  It centers around a butler and housekeeper at the estate of an English nobleman.  But Stevens the butler has something very much in common with George Bailey.  Each has a father who fails him and whom he maintains on a pedestal.  The difference is that Peter Bailey’s failure is subtler, mainly out of the audience’s awareness.  We tend to like and admire Peter Bailey so that his son’s admiration of him and acceptance of his values seems quite natural.  We see Stevens failing because he cannot accept the weaknesses in either his father or his employer, Lord Darlington.

The film also revolves around a love relationship, this one between Stevens and the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.  Unlike George Bailey, Stevens cannot act to overcome his rival for the lady’s affection.  He is paralyzed by his need to protect his relationships with paternal figures.  Nor is he aided by fate, like Charlie, the cop.  On the contrary, he is thwarted by his conscience and his responsibilities.

We might call this film a “tragedy of manners”.  The characters are bound by a rigid cultural code that does not allow them to express their feelings directly.  Seen in contrast to the more fluid boundaries of our day, the film becomes a social commentary.  The film’s culture gives the filmmakers a wonderful vehicle for portraying strong emotions.  In a world in which people never refer to each other by first name, slight nuances betray strong emotion by crossing these rigid boundaries.  The story is told through flashbacks punctuated by the current action.  It is divided into three main segments, each with its own central theme.  The first involves Stevens and his father, the second Stevens and his employer, Lord Darlington, and the third, Stevens and Miss Kenton.

The film opens with the former Miss Kenton’s letter to Stevens in which she comments on the recent sale of Darlington Hall to a rich American, Congressman Lewis, reminisces with fondness on her days as housekeeper there (”I remember those years with you as among the happiest of my life”), and hints that with her marriage over for good she might be interested in returning to service at Darlington Hall.  Stevens asks his new employer for a short holiday and suggests that he might use the time to recruit a former housekeeper.  Lewis asks with American directness and uncanny intuition if this is a girlfriend, but Stevens responds that she is simply a very good housekeeper.  We shall see that Stevens’ greatest weakness is a lack of courage to acknowledge his true feelings.

As Stevens begins his journey, the first flashback segment begins.  Miss Kenton (the name by which we and Stevens know her for most of the film) has just arrived at Darlington Hall.  The first words we hear Stevens address to Miss Kenton are a warning about the dangers of staff getting involved romantically.  He tells her that the last housekeeper ran off with the underbutler.  She agrees with him that she knows from her own experience “how a house is at sixes and sevens once the staff start marrying each other.”  The film’s moral tension has been established.  Romance challenges the established social order.

The offending underbutler is replaced by Stevens’ father, who at an advanced age can no longer continue his career as a head butler.  A tension develops immediately on two fronts.  Miss Kenton brings Stevens flowers in his private study—her first intrusion into his privacy.  She offers to bring him more fresh flowers.  He replies, “Thank you, Miss Kenton, but I regard this room as my private place of work and I prefer to keep distractions to a minimum.”  Her attempts to break through his reserve and his attempts to maintain a wall will intensify in the third and last flashback segment.

For the moment, the focus is on Stevens’ relationship with his father.  He says to Miss Kenton, “I happened to be walking past the kitchen yesterday morning, and I heard you calling to someone named William.  May I ask who you were addressing by that name?”  She answers that she was addressing his father, the only “William” on staff.  He asks her to address his father as “Mr. Stevens” and considers the matter closed.  However, she will not leave it at that.  She reminds him that as the housekeeper she would naturally address the underbutler by his first name.

Stevens replies, “Miss Kenton, if you would stop to think for a moment you would realize how inappropriate it is for someone such as yourself to address as ‘William’ someone such as my father.”  She is clearly insulted and replies, “Well, I’m sure, Mr. Stevens, it must have been very galling for your father to be called ‘William’ by one such as myself.”  “All I’m saying,” he replies cooly, seemingly comfortable in his  beliefs, “is that my father is a person from whom if you wish to be more observant you may learn many things.”  She is now openly angry, saying, “I’m most grateful for your advice, Mr. Stevens, but do please tell me what marvelous things I might learn from your father.”  He answers, “I might point out that you’re often unsure of what goes where and which item is which. ”—words which will return to haunt him.

In the ensuing scenes, Stevens is confronted with the difficulty of maintaining his idealization of a father who is also his underbutler.  Stevens’ position of authority is undercut when his father interrupts him at dinner to take over a discussion with the other servants.  Stevens Sr. later causes a slight embarrassment by allowing a drop of sweat from his nose to fall into Lord Darlington’s wine.  Stevens tries to ignore these mishaps, but Miss Kenton will not allow him to overlook his father’s mistakes and frailty.  First, she discovers that the elder Stevens has left a dustpan on the stairway landing.  She pointedly  brings it to Stevens’ attention.  Next, she catches Stevens’ father misplacing an object, in effect not knowing where things belong, and confronts Stevens with his father’s weaknesses—”Whatever your father once was, he no longer has the same ability.”

Finally, the elder Stevens stumbles with a tray full of tea in full view of Lord Darlington and his guests.  Darlington asks Stevens to reconsider his father’s duties so that no such accident would interfere with an important upcoming international conference at Darlington Hall.  Stevens is forced to confront an angry father with the order that he no longer wait at table or carry heavy trays.  But we shall see that although Stevens is capable of accommodation, he is not capable of change.

As the conference unfolds downstairs, Stevens’ father falls ill upstairs and must be carried to his room.  Shortly before the last dinner of the conference, Stevens’ father matter of factly declares to him from his bed that he had fallen out of love with Stevens’ mother—”I loved her once, but love went outta me and I found her carrying on.”  Stevens shows little reaction, responding to his father’s hope that he has been a good father by saying, “We’ll talk in the morning.”

Stevens is called out during the conference’s final toasts to hear from Miss Kenton that his father has died.  With little outward show of feeling, he tells her that he cannot go up to his bedside because he has work to do.   He says that his father would want him to go on with his work.  When Lord Darlington notices something wrong and asks if he is all right, he characteristically substitutes impersonal physical causes for the emotional ones, saying that “It’s been a long day.”

The well known psychoanalyst and psychoanalytic theorist, Hans Loewald (1979) proposed that part of the resolution of the Oedipus complex involves the boy’s ability to resolve his Oedipal rivalry with his father by taking on some of the features and belief system of the father as part of becoming more independent.  For Loewald this is like killing the father as the child has known him to establish a new, less dependent relationship.  Stevens, like George Bailey, has taken on much of his father’s features and belief system, but unlike George Bailey, he could not move beyond his idealization of his father.  As we shall see, even after his father’s death, Stevens could not free himself to become his own man.

We are presented with a subtle contrast.  In the moments before Stevens hears of his father’s death, the young American congressman, Lewis, who was later to purchase the estate, confronts his elders, the noble statesmen who are trying to effect a reconciliation with pre-war Germany, with being amateurs stepping into matters better left to professionals.

At this point, we return to the present where Stevens is picking up a letter from Miss Kenton on his way to meet her.  A shopkeeper, hearing he is from Darlington, asks about a “Lord Darlington, some sort of Nazi.”  Stevens answers that he is the butler at Darlington Hall and that his employer is an American gentleman.  “I have no acquaintance with the former owner.”  This leads us into the second flashback segment that focuses on the relationship between Stevens and Lord Darlington.

Early in this segment, Stevens gives a clear, if arguably inconsistent, statement of his idealization of Lord Darlington and their relationship.  Stevens, dressed in tuxedo and smoking a cigar, responds to a visiting butler, Mr. Benn’s comment that he must be a well contented man:  “In my philosophy, Mr. Benn, a man cannot call himself well contented until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer.  Of course, this assumes that one’s employer is a superior person, not only in rank or wealth, but in moral stature.”

The skeptical Mr. Benn replies, “And in your opinion, what’s going on up there has moral stature, does it.  I wish I could be so sure, but I’m not.  I’ve heard some very fishy things, Mr. Stevens, very fishy.”

“I hear nothing, Mr. Benn,” Stevens replies, secure in the rightness of his role.  “To listen to the gentlemen’s conversation would distract me from my work.”  (This is the inconsistency I referred to, that Stevens can be assured of the moral superiority of his employer without ever hearing what is being said.)

Mr. Benn’s skepticism concerns the meeting upstairs to which we have already been privy.  Lord Darlington’s guests have been discussing the wisdom of the Nazis who know how to deal with labor problems and Jews.  Mr. Benn’s employer, Lord Jeffrey, is the most outspoken of the group, comparing concentration camps to English prisons, both necessary to preserve order.

Stevens’ convictions will quickly be tested.  We see Lord Darlington reading Mein Kampf while two German Jewish girls, refugees from pre-war Germany, are cleaning his fireplace.  He calls Stevens in, and tells him he must dismiss the girls.

Stevens objects at first:  “Milord, may I say, they work extremely well.  They’re intelligent, polite, and very clean.”  Darlington says he has “looked into this matter very carefully.  There are larger issues at stake.  I’m sorry but there it is—they’re Jews.”

Once again, it is Miss Kenton who challenges Stevens’ idealization.  She says, “You’re saying that Elsa and Emma are to be dismissed because they’re Jewish.”  He replies in a controlled voice, “His Lordship has made his decision.  There is nothing for you and I to discuss.”  She is distressed, saying, “Do you realize if those girls have no work, they could be sent back to Germany.”  “It is out of our hands,” he answers.  “I’m telling you, Mr. Stevens, if you dismiss those girls tomorrow it will be wrong, a sin, as any sin ever was one, ” she challenges, forcing him to rely on his idealization.

“Miss Kenton, there are many things you and I don’t understand in this  world of today, whereas his Lordship understands fully and has studied the larger issues at stake concerning, say, the nature of Jewry.”

Politically, this statement stands out starkly as an argument for participatory democracy, demonstrating the weakness of leaving decisions to our betters.  Personally, it reveals again Stevens’ personal weakness in his unwillingness to confront his father figures and his surrender of his own mind and conscience to avoid that confrontation.

Miss Kenton completes the argument by warning Stevens that if the girls go, she, too, will leave.  In the next scene, she is still serving as housekeeper and Stevens asks her about her plan to leave “because of the German girls”.  She tells him that she is not leaving because she has no place to go.  She tells him that she is a coward, ashamed of herself.  In fact, she is not a coward.  She is able to confront the ugly truth about her situation without rationalization.  She makes no excuse, develops no philosophy for what she has done.

This segment of memory ends on a note that sets the stage for the main theme of the last memory segment, Stevens’ relationship with Miss Kenton.  We have seen that relationship developing throughout the film, and in this segment there have been subtle, but clear suggestions that Stevens has strong feelings for her.  In his earlier conversation with Mr. Benn, when Mr. Benn admires Miss Kenton, Stevens, in an unguarded moment, says, “I’d be lost without her.”  Then, as if to cover his tracks, he says, “A first rate housekeeper is essential in a house like this where great affairs are decided between these walls.”  Now, after Stevens has been reassured that Miss Kenton will be staying despite the dismissal of the German girls, he makes the same admission to her, with the same protective ambiguity.  “Miss Kenton, you mean a great deal to this house.  You’re extremely important to this house, Miss Kenton.”

In the flash forward, Stevens’ car stalls on the road.  He gets a ride to a local inn, where he is mistaken for a “gentleman” and, when asked, acknowledges that he has, indeed met Mr. Churchill and other well-known diplomats.  The proprietor who takes him up to his room points out a picture of his son who died at Dunkirk fighting the Nazis.  Sitting in the room, Stevens recalls the humiliating truth, a scene in which one of Darlington’s fascist friends asked him a series of questions about world finance and diplomacy to prove that only the upper classes knew enough to run the country.

In the morning, Stevens is given a ride to his car by a young man, a local physician.  The doctor asks him if he has been in service and he acknowledges with some embarrassment that he was the butler at Darlington Hall.  As in the earlier scene, the other man recalls the scandal surrounding the traitorous Lord Darlington.  At first, Stevens again claims not to have known Lord Darlington, but then works up the courage to admit the truth.  “I did know Lord Darlington, and I can declare that he was a truly good man, a gentleman through and through.”

The doctor asks about Lord Darlington and asks Stevens where he stood.  He explained that he was the butler, there to serve and not to agree or disagree.  He says that in the end, Lord Darlington admitted his mistake, that he had let himself be taken in.  As he is sending Stevens on his way, the doctor asks him, “Where do you stand in all that?  If a mistake was to be made, wouldn’t you rather have made your own?”  Stevens’ answer reveals in a characteristically understated way the hidden passion that moves the film.  “In a very small way, I did make my own mistake, but I might still have a chance to set mine right.  In fact, I’m on my way to try and do so now.  Yes.”

Since Stevens is on his way to try to bring Miss Kenton back to Darlington Hall, he is admitting, at least to himself, that his mistake was to let her go, but that even now it is not too late to set it right.  He has been truthful about Lord Darlington, and now he will attempt to summon the courage to accomplish as an older man what he could not when he was young.  Stevens faces the same dilemmas as George Bailey—a reluctance to confront and compete with a revered father and to pursue the woman he needs at his side.  But Stevens finds himself in a film that gives him no aid in his struggle.  He is not endowed with George Bailey’s propensity for action nor blessed with circumstances that push him towards his desires.  In the last segment of memory, we see the culmination of both his mistakes, with Lord Darlington and, especially, with Miss Kenton.

With Lord Darlington’s political affiliations in the background, the segment focuses on Miss Kenton’s attempts to break through Stevens’ reserve.  As the segment begins, Lord Darlington asks about the Jewish girls, acknowedging that what was done was wrong and that he feels badly about it.  In telling Miss Kenton about it, Stevens says that he had felt as she did.  She asks him the central question, “Why, Mr. Stevens, why do you always have to hide what you feel?”

The question then takes a turn towards his hiding his sexual feelings.  Observing him watching a pretty girl walk away, she coyly accuses him of not liking to hire pretty girls because they are a distraction.  “Can it be that our Mr. Stevens is flesh and blood, after all and cannot trust himself.”  He tells her, “You know what I’m doing, Miss Kenton.  I’m placing myself elsewhere while you chatter away.”

Their relationship is contrasted and reflected in the more overt sexual relationship between the same servant girl and one of the male servants, Charlie.  Miss Kenton finds them kissing in the garden.  After Miss Kenton has left, Charlie asks the girl if she has told her yet.  She says that Miss Kenton would never understand about them because she’s too old, “at least thirty”.  He responds, “Well, maybe she doesn’t feel that old.  For instance, who do you think those pretty flowers are for she’s been picking.”

Miss Kenton brings the flowers to Stevens’ room where he is reading a book.  Perhaps stimulated by the scene she has just interrupted and by her observation of him looking at the girl, she teases him with intensifying pursuit, culminating in an act that is outwardly innocent but conveys the sense of a sexual assault.

“What are you reading?”  “A book.” “Yes, what sort of book?”  “It’s a book, Miss Kenton, a book.”  She reaches for it and he pulls it away.  “What’s the book?” He stands up to walk away behind his desk.  “Are you shy about your book?” “No.” “What is it?”  She pursues him into a corner.  “Is it racy?” “Racy?”  “Are you reading a racy book?” “Do you think racy books are to be found in his Lordship’s shelves?” “How would I know? What is it?  Let me see it.  Let me see the book.”  She reaches for it again and he clutches it to his chest.  “Please leave me alone, Miss Kenton.” “Why won’t you show me your book?”  “This is my private time.  You’re invading it.”  “Oh, is that so.” “Yes.” “I’m invading your private time, am I?” “Yes.” She seems somewhat excited, thinking she has caught him reading a “racy” book.  “What’s in that book?  Come on, let me see. “  She steps closer.  “Or are you protecting me?  Is that what you’re doing?  Would I be shocked?  Would it ruin my character?  Let me see it!”  She reaches for it and slowly pries his fingers from the book while he stands woodenly helpless.  “Dear, it’s not scandalous at all.  It’s just a sentimental old love story.”  He takes the book back.  “Yes.  I read these books, any books, to develop my command and knowledge of the English language.  I read to further my education, Miss Kenton.  Now, really I must ask you please not to disturb the few moments I have to myself.”  She leaves, clearly disturbed at what she has done.

One must admire film makers who can set up their characters and setting so well that such a scene, capable of passing any rating for family viewing, is experienced as the most intense, passionate, and disturbing of rapes.

Again, we go back to the contrasting relationship between the two younger servants.  With Charlie waiting outside the door, Lizzy goes to Miss Kenton to give her notice because she and Charlie are getting married.  In the brief dialogue, Miss Kenton attempts to convince Lizzy to stay on and be practical, but she could as easily be arguing with herself.  The younger couple expresses the repressed passions of the older couple.

“Oh, Lizzy, have you thought about this, carefully?”

“Yes, Miss Kenton, I have.”

“You’ve been getting on very well here, and I think you have a good career ahead of you if you just stick to it.”

“Charlie and me is getting married.  Charlie and I.”

“Lizzy, I wish I knew what to say to you.  I’ve seen this happen so many times before—a young girl rushing into marriage only to be disappointed in the end.  And what about money?”

“We don’t have any, but who cares?”

“You’ll find it’s not easy to live poor.”

“We have each other.  That’s all anyone can ever need.”

“Very well, Lizzy, if you’re so sure.”

“Yes, Miss Kenton.  Thank you.”

As we watch the next scene, which is an important turning point in Miss Kenton’s relationship to Stevens, we understand Miss Kenton’s ambivalence in part because we have seen her hidden wishes expressed by Lizzy.  While Stevens is stuffily certain—”I told him I had my eye on him as a possible underbutler in a year or so, but no, Mr. Charlie knows best”—Miss Kenton is lost in thought.  She is clearly upset as she complains that she is too tired to discuss household routines that night using Stevens’ usual fallback.  He is insulted and testily calls off their meetings entirely.  She pleads that she meant it only for tonight, but he is stubborn.  As the scene closes, she tells him she is planning to take her night off the following night. She spends that night at a pub with Mr. Benn, who has left service.  Mr. Benn breaks the film’s barriers, insisting on first names—Tom and Sally—kissing her, and asking her to go with him to set up on their own.  He has offered her the same kind of relationship as Lizzy has with Charlie, appealing to the silent part of the conflict.

All of this leads us to Stevens’ moment of crisis as his conflicts converge on one critical night.  With less drama and more subtlety than George Bailey standing on the bridge contemplating suicide and praying for divine intervention, Stevens faces his turning point and fails to take the courage to act.

Miss Kenton tells Stevens that since it is Thursday, she will be going out.  She tells him that she is meeting Mr. Benn, and that Mr. Benn has asked her to marry him.  She says that she is considering it, and wanted to keep him informed.  Stevens says nothing.  As it turns out, this is an important evening in other ways as well.  There is a furtive visit by the Prime Minister at which he meets representatives of the German government to discuss England’s response (or non-response) to Germany’s planned invasion of Czechoslovakia.   Subtitles allow us to peek in on the Germans appraising Lord Darlington’s artwork for future reference.  We can see a clear parallel between the pathological passivity of the British government and Stevens’ personal paralysis.

While the discussions are ongoing, Miss Kenton is brought to the door by police guards asking Stevens to verify her identity.  As Stevens leads Miss Kenton into the house, he slams the door shut and walks ahead of her saying, “I trust you had a pleasant evening.”  More irritably, he asks, “Well, did you have a pleasant evening?” She answers, also in a stern tone, “Yes, thank you.  Would you like to know what took place?”  He says he has to return upstairs, that “there are events of the utmost importance taking place in this house tonight,” a statement that is ironical to the viewer, pointing us to the contrast between the important public events and the important private events.

Miss Kenton follows him down the hall.  “I accepted his proposal.”  “Miss Kenton?”

“I accepted Mr. Benn’s proposal of marriage.”  “My congratulations.”   “I am prepared to serve out my notice, but if you were able to release me earlier, I would be grateful.  Mr. Benn is planning to leave for the west country in two weeks time.”  “I’ll do my best.”  “Mr. Stevens, (He turns around again) am I to take it that after all the years I have been in this house, you have nothing else to say to me?”  “You have my warmest congratulations.”  It is unclear if there is a quiver of his lip.  At this point, she retaliates, telling him that she and Mr. Benn make fun of him.

Stevens returns to his work.  We see him serving wine to Darlington’s nephew, Mr. Cardinal, now a journalist.  Cardinal has arrived unexpectedly, although as he says not by accident, to spy on the proceedings in the house.  He notices something wrong with Stevens as Darlington had after Stevens’ father’s death, and again Stevens says he is simply tired.  Cardinal tries to convince Stevens that Lord Darlington is being duped by the Nazis, that he is making a terrible mistake, but Stevens only states that Lord Darlington is trying to achieve “peace in our time.”  He does seem to react, however, to the word mistake.

As he returns to the servants quarters, Stevens is met by Miss Kenton who asks him not to take what she has said to heart.  He says he hasn’t taken anything she has said to heart.  He appears unaffected, but when he goes to the wine cellar to get a bottle, he drops it and yells out, “Damn!” betraying his repressed emotions.  When he returns from the wine cellar with a new bottle, he hears Miss Kenton weeping in her room.  He enters her room, but the wrong words come out of his mouth.

“Miss Kenton.” “Yes, Mr. Stevens.”  “Miss Kenton, I’ve been wanting to tell you . . . It’s the small alcove outside the breakfast room— it’s the new girl, of course, but I find it has not been dusted in some time.”  “I’ll see to it, Mr. Stevens.”  “Thank you.  I knew you would have wanted to be informed, Ms. Kenton.”  He walks out, and she bows her head to shed quieter tears.

We shift forward again for the last time.  The story from the past is completed, and even though it is told in understatement, we don’t miss the point.  We have seen Stevens’ mistakes: his idealization of his father and of Lord Darlington, his inability to overcome those idealizations to form his own opinions or act on his own, and finally, his inability to act on his true feelings towards Miss Kenton.   In his quiet way, he has acknowledged those mistakes and determined to correct the greatest of his errors as he approaches his rendezvous with Sally Kenton.

If this were It Could Happen to You, Stevens would unexpectedly find himself in an intimate confrontation with Miss Kenton in which he would have no choice but to explain his feelings for her, and she would reciprocate.  If he were George Bailey, he might approach her cautiously at first, but eventually allow his feelings to overcome his inhibitions as he embraces her.

Before Stevens meets Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, she finds out that her daughter is expecting a baby.   They meet for tea at a seaside hotel while elderly couples dance. She tells him that her plans have changed.  Her daughter will need her now, so she will be unable to go back to Darlington Hall.  Their moment has been lost.

She makes a bit of a confession as they walk on the boardwalk.  She tells him that when she’d left Darlington Hall she hadn’t fully realized she was leaving, that she felt as if it was just a ruse to annoy him.  She said that she was unhappy until her daughter was born, but then realized she loved her husband because he needed her more than anyone in the world.  “But still there are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made of my life.”  His response is characteristically and tragically laconic.  “Well I’m sure we all have these thoughts from time to time.”  Just before her bus arrives, he tells her to take good care of herself and to do what she can to make these years happy ones for herself and her husband, then says, “We may never meet again, Mrs. Benn.  That is why I am permitting myself to be so personal, if you will forgive me.”  As her bus takes off, we see their hands release each other in a gesture that is particularly touching for the contrast between the outward act and the feelings behind it.

Unlike Charlie in It Could Happen to You or George in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stevens has no way of fulfilling his romantic fantasies.  He is trapped.   The film teases Stevens and us with some hope of a happy ending as he approaches his rendezvous with the former housekeeper, but this is not a film that gratifies fantasies.  The film offers us little hope.  Tom Benn, who acts on his belief and his passion, throwing off his servitude, is a recovering alcoholic who has made a mess of his life.  We are told that Darlington’s nephew, Cardinal, was killed in the war.  In this film, the Oedipus taboo is presented as insoluble.  We can suppress and disguise our true ambitions and wishes, like Stevens; or, like Benn and Cardinal, we can attempt to challenge our destiny only to be destroyed.  At best, we identify with Sally Kenton Benn who has accepted the accommodations and limitations of her life while gratifying some of her wishes.

Ironically, the only thing that appears to keep Stevens going is the rigid structure that has entrapped him.  When Mrs. Benn asks what he looks forward to in life, he tells her he looks forward going back to Darlington Hall and his work.  The work does not allow him to attain his dreams, but it does prevent him from being crushed, like Mr. Benn, by his failure.  Life is presented as a trap in which we look back at lost opportunities and unfulfilled dreams with only regret and fatalism as we look forward to “the remains of the day.”

The tragic solution does not give us the momentary pleasure of wish fulfillment that we get from It Could Happen to You nor the more lasting sense of hope that we are left with on seeing It’s a Wonderful Life. In this film, as in all tragedy, it is conscience that rules.  It Could Happen to You dismisses conscience, allowing us the momentary pleasure of an unencumbered fantasy.  In this film, there is no escape.  The film arouses our desire to escape by giving us transient hope as Stevens says he is planning to correct his mistake, but that hope is crushed.  When we see the broken and humbled Tom Benn, we realize that there never was a good alternative.  Stevens’ only real “hope” is to maintain his dignity by denying his passions and focusing on his work.  Ultimately we leave the theater having to cope with our own conflicts about the limitations of our lives, parental authority and sexual taboos.  Instead of washing it clean, the film brings our internal struggle to the surface and forces us to seek solutions within our selves.

Loewald, H. (1979) The waning of the Oedipus complex. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assoc. 27:751-776

Originally published in Double Feature: Discovering our Hidden Fantasies in Film by Herbert H. Stein (2002:e-reads)

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