Friday, August 14, 2009

Gosford Park (2001)

Mrs. Wilson: I'm the perfect servant; I have no life.
~Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001)
Watching Gosford Park is like being one of the guests gathering at an English country house for a shooting party in the early 1930's; whispered portions of conversations can be overheard, as the pieces of the puzzle gradually come together. One is privy to the secrets, sordid and sublime (mostly sordid) of both the upstairs and downstairs worlds at the estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon). Sir William is a new money entrepreneur who through his wealth (and a game of cards) married into the aristocracy. He is a boorish brute; no one likes him but Elsie the housemaid (Emily Watson), with whom he is currently cavorting, and his brat of lap dog. Sir William made free with the girls in his factory over the years, the repercussions of which will come back to haunt him on the momentous weekend of the shoot. As the guests arrive, one views the drama mostly through the perspective of the innocent Scottish maid of Lady Constance (Maggie Smith). Lady Constance is the aunt of the family; her remarks about the various goings on remind me of a droll, one-woman Greek chorus and could only be delivered with the right amount of humor and irony by Dame Maggie Smith.

According to a review in the New Yorker:
The year is 1932, and Constance, barely hanging on to her feudal prerogatives, knows very well that the art of the masses can have nothing but a levelling effect on English manners. Like the other members of the weekend mob at Gosford Park, Constance depends heavily on the largesse of Sir William, a school teacher's son who made his pile as a factory owner and bought his way into the aristocracy. Sir William is a rapacious old dog who has victimized some of the guests and some of the household staff, too. His wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), detests him, and amuses herself with the better-looking male servants. She has quite a number to choose from: for the weekend party, there are, by my count, twenty-nine servants in attendance on fourteen people—and I'm not including the beaters, who chase pheasants through the brush.

Many of the guests arrive with their own help. How to keep the names straight? As Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), the chief housekeeper, explains, the visiting servants, for simplicity's sake, will be known "belowstairs" by the names of their employers. For instance, Parks (Clive Owen), the handsome and self-possessed valet of Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance), is known as Mr. Stockbridge. At dinner, the servants are arrayed according to their status. With a start, we realize that they have established their own class system, imitating the ranks and privileges—and humiliations—of their employers. The butler (Alan Bates) bullies the first footman (Richard E. Grant), who bullies the second footman (Jeremy Swift), and so on. In the course of the weekend, however, some of the servants assert who they are and what they want. A murder is committed, an act of personal vengeance that vibrates with decades-old class and sexual antagonisms.

Not only are the Americans and the movies taking over but Hitler is coming, and, after the war, a Labour government, all of which will curtail the elaborate life of the great country estates. Yet "Gosford Park" is neither an elegy nor a Marxist attack. It's too bitter to be the first, too witty to be the second. The movie is a very high-style and amusing genre entertainment that, at the same time, has its roots planted deep in social reality. Call it an Agatha Christie house-party picture that reveals the intricacies of class and sex in a way that Christie never could. "Gosford Park" is based on an idea of Altman and Bob Balaban's and was written by the English actor and screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who is clearly a very talented man. The filmmakers begin by nesting comfortably in the most familiar of conventions. There's the large group of swells and underlings. There are motives and clues (knife, poison, shattered cup), a tomblike library, footsteps in the night—the entire creaking paraphernalia of the English murder mystery. Only this time nothing creaks. Instead, the movie flows with an almost erotic intensity from room to room, from upstairs to downstairs, from master to servant, from tender intimacy to public humiliation. All this traffic is selected and combined by the greatest flow-master in movie history.

Throughout the drama it becomes clear that, in spite of the strict distinctions of rank and class, the lives of the McCordle family and their guests are inextricably entwined with those of their servants. Although there has been exploitation and manipulation all around, there has also been a great deal of mutual support and deep trust between the family and the staff that the visiting Americans cannot fully grasp. The persons who are treated with the most contempt are not the domestics but guests who are seen as being parvenus, such as the vile American actor who infiltrates the servants' quarters. One of the most sympathetic characters is Mrs. Nesbitt, the daughter of a glove manufacturer who was married for her money but ended up being poor. Her husband despises her and so does everyone else; her bourgeois ways are a source of continual mockery. By the end, however, Mrs. Nesbitt finds the strength to rise above it all.

It is hinted that Isobel, Sir William and Lady Sylvia's rather lost-looking daughter, has been seduced by nasty Mr. Nesbitt and has secretly had an abortion. I find that particular situation an interesting contrast with the tragedy of the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson, who as a young girl had a child out of wedlock whom she put in an orphanage, thinking that the baby would be adopted and have a better chance of survival. "His all that ever mattered," she sobs to her sister, after much that was hidden has been revealed.

There are innumerable memorable lines in Gosford Park; one of my favorite are the words of Dorothy the housemaid to one of the guests who has sought refuge in the pantry to console himself with some homemade jam. Dorothy says: "I believe in love. Not just getting it, but giving it. I think that if you're able to love someone, even if they don't know it, even if they can't love you back, then it's worth it."

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Catherine Delors said...

I loved this film, Elena! Moving, clever, visually beautiful, and such a gathering of great actors...

elena maria vidal said...

I did not even recognize half the great actors when I first saw it. It was just recently that I recognized Clive Owen as the Lord Stockbridge's valet. The performances are all excellent.