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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: Gosford Park (2001)

* * * *

Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen

No one makes movies quite the way Robert Altman did. His films don’t spoon feed you the story and they don’t always wait for you to be caught up; sometimes they take off running before the first frame, so that as an audience you walk right into the middle. I know that some find his style maddening and even shallow, touching first on this person and then on that and not really allowing any of them to be substantially fleshed out. Personally, I like his style and the way he brings the whole forest into focus rather than concentrating on one or two individual trees. And so it is with Gosford Park, which uses a wide range of characters to tell us about the English class system and alternates easily between being charming and tragic.

Gosford Park is the name of a great estate in the countryside belonging to Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Guests arrive to spend the weekend hunting and socializing, including William’s sister, Constance (Maggie Smith), always on edge regarding the allowance he has granted her, and an American film producer (Bob Ballaban) and his alleged footman (Ryan Phillipe). Here it becomes difficult to discuss the plot because Altman’s films tend to not have plots, as such. His films are about the ways that people weave in and out of each other’s lives, about how they talk and what they say (or avoid saying); we learn things about these people, but they don’t necessarily do anything.

The house – and, essentially, the story – is divided in two: the upstairs which concerns the rich people at their leisure, and the downstairs occupied by their servants. The servants are, of course, a fixture in the upstairs but it’s a shock when one of the upstairs denizens comes downstairs, as Sylvia does at one point to confirm a special arrangement for dinner. It upsets the balance of things for her to be there because when the staff is downstairs they’re people, but when they’re upstairs they’re just part of the machine that makes the house run, barely acknowledged and certainly not considered in any real way by the people upstairs. In coming downstairs and seeing the staff at ease, it’s almost as if she’s seen them undressed, which is why the staff reacts so strongly later when it is revealed that the allegedly Scottish footman is actually an American actor studying for a role. He hasn’t simply deceived them; he’s violated the sanctity of their private existence. The separation of the classes is the central theme and, in particular, the film works at breaking down the classes within the classes. The servants, for example, dine at their table according to the rank of their employer, and there is a hierarchy amongst the rich which makes some dependant on others to maintain their stature - being a member of a class doesn't necessarily make you equal to another member of the same class. I think that's why Altman's style is so well suited to this story, because it allows for a wide range of different types of interactions.

There are several plot threads, all of which are left in an open-ended fashion, including a murder. For me, the most interesting of the subplots involves Elsie, the head housemaid played marvellously by the always reliable Emily Watson. As the story progresses we learn that Elsie has been carrying on an affair with Sir William. The circumstances of the relationship are fascinating because, on the one hand, Elsie obviously has some affection for Sir William, whom she calls Bill and about whom she speaks in such a way that suggests that there’s more to the relationship than sex. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that she ever had much choice about the relationship. The film is set in 1932, when women didn’t exactly have much in the way of recourse against the advances of an employer – if Elsie had rejected Sir William (whom we learn has a long history taking liberties with his employees), she would have lost her job and her home. Her position is an impossible one but Watson doesn’t let her play out as a victim. She’s a character who has more or less accepted the unfairness of her lot and become determined to make the best of it until she can find her way into a better situation, and Watson plays her with a great deal of grace and nuance.

Aside from Watson, there are several other great performances that get showcased here: Scott Thomas as the icy lady of the manor, Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins as two warring members of the staff, Clive Owen as a staff member who knows he has a secret connection to one person in the house but is unaware of the connection he has to another, Kelly Macdonald as an innocent maid whose role is largely to stand in for the audience within the narrative, and Smith, who pretty much steals the show with a performance which moves easily between being light and breezy to being heavy and desperate. As is typical of Altman’s films, all of these characters get moments to shine but no one is really the lead and the film isn’t carried by any one character. This is a collective effort to paint a very detailed picture of human interaction. It's a great movie and one which I've found reveals something new with each viewing.


R. D. Finch said...

Norma, what a well-written and perceptive review. I especially liked the forest and trees analogy to describe Altman's storytelling style. Many people discuss influential film directors, but to me no modern director was more influential on techniques of cinematic narrative than Altman. Without MASH and his subsequent movies, the strategy of multiple, simultaneous, only occasionally intersecting story lines would not exist--or at least would not have come into being so soon. And nobody thinks that this approach to writing and directing is anything remarkable nowadays! You see it all the time even on television.

You made some great observations about the British class system and the downstairs hierarchy. I'm also glad you singled out the performance of Emily Watson. She seemed to get overlooked among all the other performers, but along with the flamboyant Maggie Smith, she made the strongest impression on me. And Alan Bates was very touching in one of his last performances as the gruff and slightly befuddled head butler.

All in all, a very focused review of a marvelous movie.

Norma Desmond said...

The thing that I love most about Altman is that there's always so much going on in his films that the experience of watching one just becomes richer every time you see it.

Prior to seeing this one, all I was hearing about was Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith, but it was Emily Watson who really captured and held my attention. It's too bad she couldn't get more attention for the film when it came out.