Anthony Hopkins, who turned 73 this past New Year's Eve, has enjoyed a diverse and enviable acting career, a testament to his exceptional talent. Equally effective playing a contemporary serial killer or the perfect English gentleman in period films, Hopkins is always compelling, without, it often seems, breaking a sweat. His natural elegance and smooth, commanding delivery have served him very well, whether they're employed for sophistication or for chills.
Most moviegoers, of course, know him as Dr. Hannibal Lecter -- one of the all-time great movie villains. The role won him a Best Actor Oscar in 1992 for 'The Silence of the Lambs' (though he was only on screen for 16 minutes), and he'd later reprise Lecter for 'Hannibal' (2001) and 'Red Dragon' (2002).
This Friday he stars in Mikael Håfström's 'The Rite' as a Jesuit priest who's an expert in exorcism. It's the latest of the actor's many forays to the dark side. As far back as the '70s he starred in horror films both solid ('Magic') and not ('Audrey Rose'); more recently he appeared in the underwhelming 'The Wolfman.'
Like many veteran actors, he has starred in more than a few bombs and big-budget bores, but his resume also includes several deeply memorable films. His beautifully modulated portrayal of Dr. Frederick Treves in 'The Elephant Man' (1980) was one of his finest roles of that period; he was also brilliant as Lt. Bligh in 'The Bounty' (1984). During the '90s he gave remarkable performances in 'Nixon, 'The Edge' and 'Amistad.'
A year after his indelible impression in 'The Silence of the Lambs,' he starred alongside Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave and Helena Bonham Carter in 'Howards End,' a great adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel about class conflict in early-20th-century England. Hopkins infused his character, a shy, reactionary banker, with poignancy and complexity. Terrific as it was, he soon superseded that performance by playing James Stevens, the repressed butler in 1994's 'The Remains of the Day,' which reteamed him with Thompson in another Ismail Merchant–James Ivory production.
A faithful and gorgeous adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, 'The Remains of the Day' is one of the most moving films ever made about unrequited love. Its timeframe toggles between the 1950s, as Stevens prepares to reunite with his former Darlington Hall co-worker, a housekeeper, and pre–World War II England in flashbacks.
As the butler, Stevens is unfailingly polite, serene and professional. He excels at his job and is clearly appreciated by his employer, Lord Darlington (James Fox). Hopkins' character is so slavishly devoted to both his profession and Darlington that he's blinded to the limitations of both. Stevens could be played as caricature, but Hopkins never allows that to happen.
The butler's tranquility is interrupted by the arrival of a new housekeeper, the young, somewhat feisty -- but equally capable -- Miss Kenton (beautifully played by Thompson). Around the same time, his father William (Peter Vaughn) is hired as under-butler. Stevens and Kenton get off to a rocky start:
The elderly William is clearly not up to the job, dropping trays and misplacing household items. At first Stevens is in denial, but soon must face facts. He never loses his composure as his father declines, but the terrible strain shows in Hopkins' eyes and gestures.
Meanwhile, he and Kenton develop a mutual attraction, and while she makes a few tentative stabs at acknowledgment, he can't allow himself to admit his feelings, however strong:
Similarly, he does not think it his place to listen to Darlington and guests -- including Christopher Reeve as an American senator -- discuss world events, even when asked his opinion by Kenton, who is appalled by their employer's anti-Semitism.
Only much later does Stevens realize that the pro-German Darlington was a disgrace to England, just as he later understands the impact of repressing his feelings for Kenton. Even then he's dignified, relatively unemotional. But Hopkins subtly lets us know how devastated he really is. It's hard to envision anyone else pulling off such an understated, moving performance, and it remains Mr. Hopkins' finest.