Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Partway into this film, I was enjoying it for the absence of the usual offensive Hollywood elements and for what seemed to be a positive portrayal of servanthood. However, the extremes to which the central character takes his concept of being a servant will leave many American viewers right where they started—with the belief that being in obedience to someone else is dehumanizing and dangerous.
Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the chief butler in the house of a British aristocrat. The film opens with a more recent scene, at a time when the master has died; then flashes back for most of its duration to the 1930s. Hopkins' character runs a very tight ship, setting aside all human feeling when necessary and expecting the underservants to do the same. The only thing that matters is that the house is run properly and without incident. We know he’s taken his devotion to duty over the top when he remains at his post rather than go to the bedside of his dying father (who in his day was also a chief butler), and when he does not object to orders from his master (a Nazi sympathizer) to dismiss some of the servants just because they’re Jewish. Late in life, while serving a new master (Christopher Reeve), he attempts to change his ways somewhat and to renew a friendship with a former fellowservant (Emma Thompson); but he’s not very good at reversing a lifetime of habit.
There’s no sexual content or violence, nor is bad language an issue. Young children could watch it, although they’d probably be bored stiff.
The only major objectionable element is the implication that it’s impossible to be a good servant and a human being at the same time. That isn’t true. Jesus taught that in the Kingdom of God, whoever wants to be a leader must first be the servant of all. At the Last Supper, while His disciples were arguing over who would be the greatest among them, He embarrassed them by taking the position of a slave and washing their feet, telling them that He was giving them an example to follow. The next day Jesus continued His servanthood by allowing Himself to be crucified for the sins of the whole world. As His followers, we are asked to lay down our lives for each other as circumstances may require (this doesn’t mean just martyrdom but also continual servanthood). Obeying that command doesn’t take away our human dignity; it establishes us as being willing to sacrifice for something greater than ourselves.