Lady Aline Hartlip: Why are you smiling?The Shooting Party is a film of simple magnificence which captures in a few subtle scenes what was good and bad about the old order. It was an order that was to be dealt yet another death blow by World War One, the first blow being the French Revolution. What was good about society on the eve of the conflagration seems to greatly out weigh the flaws, those (alleged) flaws being the class distinctions and decadent aristocrats. Unfortunately, instead of class distinctions we now have no class at all, by which I mean we live in a society bereft of manners and a code of polite conduct. As for the decadent aristocrats of old, in our time the decadence of a few has overwhelmed most of society.
Sir Randolph Nettleby: [Introspectively] I can't imagine... except that... sometimes when my thoughts about the future are particularly gloomy, I find myself feeling more and more light-hearted. —The Shooting Party (1985)
According to MemorableTV:
To be always obsessing about class divisions seems to be a malady of the modern age, brought about by the persistent encroachments of Marxism into our way of thinking. It ends with people having a sense of rootlessness as well as problems being comfortable with their own identity. I was always proud to be descended from hard-working and resourceful people who were brave enough to build families in a far away land. I personally do not understand the jealousy which underlies class conflict. When people know and accept where they come from then they know who they are, and who they are not. Everyone in The Shooting Party knows who they are, except for the adulterous and nouveau-riche Hartlips, who symbolize the crass new age which has already dawned. The Hartlips are in sharp contrast to Sir Randolph and Lady Nettleby (James Mason and Dorothy Tutin) who see their duties to their family and their tenants as sacred. This is exemplified by how Sir Randolph weeps over his fatally wounded tenant as if the man were his brother.Set on the cusp of World War One the sumptuous The Shooting Party is a movie about one very privileged way of life slipping away and another harder life coming in.
A great cast is headed by James Mason, in his last completed film role. Mason plays the head of a large country estate where a Shooting Party weekend is in full swing, his guests a mixture of well to do English types and some foreign incomers. The goings on of these “upstairs” characters (from late night affairs, to petty rivalries) are contrasted with those of the beaters on the shoot.
Elegiac in tone and full of muted browns and greens The Shooting Party captures the period beautifully, showing the class divide which World War One helped to break down some.
"Idle Historian" expresses it well, as follows:
At the same time, the sorrow of Sir Randolph for his dying indigent tenant (who has also indulged in poaching) is certainly real (that is, of course, for a fictional account). For him, noblesse oblige and the conduct of a gentleman still matter supremely. Nor is the anger of his young granddaughter any less real, directed against the Austro-Hungarian aristocrat who is attempting to woo her, and who dismissively claims that the dead man "was only a peasant." In his arrogance he is unaware that in the coming war his entire way of life, and the Empire that gives him his prestige, will be entirely decimated. She hits back with the phrase "we all knew him," indicating that fact that, for all its wrongs and inequalities, the England depicted in the film was still a society. People, rich or poor, important or inconsequential, still in some way belonged. In the final scene of the film, the poor dead man is borne across the desolate fields in a procession of the great and the humble, like some elevated train of the Elizabethan "chain of being." It represents a disappearing world where the fact that "we all knew him" became less relevant, where large and unseen forces such as the corporation de-personalized the world of getting by and getting the better of one's fellow human beings. The lord of the manor might well have mistreated his peasants, but he still had to look them in the eye. The advent of a new world, and the recession into mythology of the world of The Shooting Party, altered all that.While Lady Aline is having an affair, the shy Lady Olivia Lilburn (Judy Bowker), quite unhappily unmarried as well, has fallen in love with the handsome and intellectual barrister Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer). Rupert and Olivia, instead of choosing adultery, choose the path of honor, acknowledging to each other that although love exists between them, there are too many realities in the way. "But the love is real all the same?" asks Lionel. "Yes, it is," concedes Olivia and arm and arm they lead the funeral march into the future.