Gosford Park (2001)

Dir. Robert Altman. Starring Maggie Smith, Kelly Macdonald, Ryan Philippe

In retrospect, it was a mistake to make Gosford Park a murder mystery. What makes Nashville and Short Cuts effective is the unbelievably patient burn among small pockets of people which culminates in an event which no person can ignore. In Short Cuts, it’s the earthquake that no one can escape from; in Nashville, it’s the assassination of Barbara Jean and, more importantly, the group rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me.” (Nashville is so perfect it hurts.) But Gosford Park has its great dramatic moment a little more than halfway through the story, in which a major character to be named later is murdered. The story tries to provide a twist in its own way, a twist which by British class standards might be nearly Faulknerian, but one that fails to capture our imaginations with the same vigor of either previous Altman film. Another advantage that Nashville and especially Short Cuts have on Gosford Park is the potential for movement. The former stretch out across entire cities, with characters who are not bound to a single estate, and then even further to floors or tasks on those estates. Short Cuts feels, at times, like we’ll never be able to adequately connect the dots, and that is hypnotic. Gosford Park connects almost all of the dots and expects us to hang on the identity of a murderer when most of the characters seem not to care themselves. It’s at once too neat in its execution and too messy in its buildup, the first Altman film I’ve watched where I’ve really felt like the size of the ensemble cast was unnecessary, better for a murder mystery RPG than a murder mystery film. Not to sound like the Emperor in Amadeus, but there are too many characters. Too many people mug for our attention, and for our sustained attention, in too short a time. Too many of them require us to care about them. Nashville puts people like Jeff Goldblum and Timothy Brown and Bert Remsen and Barbara Baxley in the movie and never really asks us to do more than witness them for a few minutes. I felt a much stronger pull to care about the little people (noble and otherwise) in Gosford Park, but with less stated reason to do so.

The size of the ensemble cast does one thing which makes the film technically interesting; more than in any other Altman film I’ve seen, Gosford Park makes us listen to the characters with an almost impossible depth. Conversations interweave and overlap in a manner which really does create a buzz like any other full room we’ve ever been in, and it’s deeply impressive; one gets the sense that a second viewing would illuminate us in ways that the first couldn’t, and so on every time out. And if it is filled with characters who feel more useless than ornamental, then it at least gives many of those seemingly useless characters a moment to shine. Tom Hollander and Charles Dance on the whole are not super useful, but Hollander gets about 75% of the way to “Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult” in some of his scenes, and Dance’s left ear deafness is a clever running gag; the implication is that he’s picked that up during service in World War I. Their dialogue – their exasperation and their polite “What?” – add to the hum of the general ambience, even if they are not precisely justified in the plot.

Gosford Park is not as strictly critical as Nashville in particular is of its setting, and it’s the difference between filming a contemporary movie and filming a period piece set nearly seventy years in the past. The film’s real dramatic climax occurs at table one evening as Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) accuses her husband (Michael Gambon) in front of the entire company of, essentially, having profited off World War I. A maid, Elsie (Emily Watson), gets about halfway through a sentence defending Sir William, who is, in the finest British vernacular, “bonking” her. Although no one has any real kind words for Sir William once he’s been murdered, it’s the only time that anyone from one social class lays down the boom on another person from their social class in front of everyone else. Head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) and head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) have a longstanding feud which everyone knows about; behind closed doors, which you can still hear every word behind, Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) is awful to his wife, Mabel (Claudie Blakley). But Lady Sylvia’s words to her husband are genuinely surprising, completely outside the mainstream of what was allowed to be said – and, unsurprisingly, the only reason she gets taken off the hook for that barb is because a servant put herself on the hook for something at least as bad. There are about half a dozen layers to mine through in a scene like this – and indeed, in about half a dozen scenes before and after. On the whole, the upstairs crowd is fussy and vain, clueless and dismissive. They are fascinated by the presence of a film star, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), in their midst, but once he starts singing and playing piano they start making nasty remarks behind his back. The downstairs crowd is alternately vituperative and fawning. The movie goes there when we find out that Jennings, played by Alan Bates, calls all the servants by their masters’ surnames and seats them according to their masters’ place at the table. The issue is that this is too obviously fiction, too obviously removed from any reality that the viewer can really relate to. Julian Fellowes (I have held off on saying his name as long as possible), who took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, is much quicker to pull the trigger on “But the nobility is actually good!” in Downton Abbey than he is in Gosford Park, and for that he deserves some credit. In this film, every noble is either degenerate or effete, especially fortunate that s/he is in a position to be waited on; maybe two or three of them are competent enough to have been footmen or maids in a manor house if the tables were turned. The flaws of the servants, from George’s (Richard E. Grant) lust to Jennings’ narrowness to Mrs. Croft’s spite, would all play just the same upstairs as they do downstairs, and at least those three servants are all perfectly capable human beings. The servants are the best people in the film, and perhaps unsurprisingly they also commit the most reprehensible sins over the course of the film.

As the movie progresses, it comes out that Sir William has a long history of fooling around with people he should never have fooled around with; women working in his factories frequently bore his children, and the survivors grew up in orphanages. It turns out that both Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Croft were victims of Sir William’s, and while Mrs. Wilson turns out to be the murderer (she poisons him), Mrs. Croft is also slyly complicit. A carving knife is stolen from the kitchens and she takes little interest in finding it; it turns out that Lord Stockbridge’s valet, Parks (Clive Owen) has stolen it and used it to stab his father in the hope of killing him himself. (Mrs. Wilson, who self-defines as the perfect servant because of her powers of anticipation, gets to Sir William first with the poison and technically leaves her son innocent. This should be more effective than it is; even with Mirren talking, all I can hear is Fellowes declaiming about what makes the perfect servant instead of hearing Mirren explaining what pushed her to a remarkably drastic action.) This is all charmingly grotesque – Sir William really keeps his rape victims around as servants? – and so incestuous that one is tempted to break out the Faulkner tag again. Gosford Park is funny more than it’s anything else, but when they remake it, it really ought to be a horror movie.

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