Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Taking a Chance on Love

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Taking a Chance on Love

Article excerpt

Aside from preadolescent males (who find them icky in the extreme), I suspect that nearly everyone else on the planet has a soft spot in his or her heart for a good love story. Certainly romantic comedies such as last year's "Sleepless in Seattle" or "Four Weddings and a Funeral" delight and amuse us with their stories of fumbling, sometimes foolish, and yet often endearing lovers, and we soon find our hearts conspiring with them, hoping against hope for that magical ending when everything dissolves into roses and violins.

And yet even though these tales of enchanted evenings and spotting strangers across a crowded room (or continent) are sweetly delicious and sometimes intoxicating, most of us know (or remember on the way back to the parking lot) that love is more than winning a prize and sailing off into the sunset. Maybe that's why it's sometimes refreshing to curl up with a movie offering a slightly different, perhaps more thoughtful, take on why love is so important to us and what its presence or absence does to us.

Although there wre certainly other thoughtful films about love in the past year, I found myself particularly struck by four: "The Remains of the Day," "Shadowlands," "The Piano," and "Like Water for Chocolate." In the first two, the central characters (both played by Anthony Hopkins) are men on the verge of love, attracted mothlike to its flame, but terrified by its fierce demands. For love would have them stretch beyond the safe comfort of their solitary castles and settled routines, giving up the tight reins they hold on their lives and embracing the awful risk of pain and loss. Love would enlarge and redeem them, but only after they've surrendered their comfort and safety. In the second set of films, the central characters are women who hear love's call as an invitation to become creative, even artistic, as they tap into the wellspring of love within themselves. Their love will be redemptive as well, but first it must be awakened and allowed to live.

In "The Remains of the Day," Hopkins plays Mr. Stevens, the chief butler of pre-World War II Darlington Castle and a man who appears at first glance to have found a deep contentment and sense of well-being in the perfectly ordered career of service in his lordship's manor. Safely ensconced behind the battlements of his master's estate, our Mr. Stevens thrives as the majordomo of a highly structured household, whose sharply defined roles and rules allow its small army of servants to function with a smooth precision any Swiss watchmaker would envy. Whether holding court at the servant's dinner table or overseeing the detailed preparations for an international conference, Stevens exudes the good humor and satisfaction of a man well suited to his life and task.

And yet for all of this contentment, Stevens is a tragic figure, a man whose heart is not so much mean spirited as a size or two too small. He is a frightened child afraid of letting go of the costumes and customs that provide for him such reassuring predictability, a man unwilling to risk stepping outside of protocol and doing his own thinking, feeling, or living. In some profound way, the orderliness of Stevens' routines and relationships have become a safe haven to which he retreats from the messiness and ambiguity of life--a retreat that diminishes him as a person.

For when his own father, an aging under-butler in the same household, falls seriously ill and tries on his deathbed to express feelings of loss and affection, Stevens is completely incapable of any sort of intimate exchange. And later, when the older man dies, there is something pathetic about Stevens' inability to acknowledge or express the grief he so clearly feels. He is trapped in the security blanket of his role.

Of course the central tragedy of the film is Stevens' failure to take the risk of expressing his love for Miss Kenton (played by Emma Thompson), Darlington's housekeeper and a woman of considerable warmth and wit, whose deepening affection for Stevens seems to offer his last best chance for redemption. …

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