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Saturday, April 9, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Gosford Park (2001)

Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ryan Phillippe
Country: United Kingdom

Like most Robert Altman films, Gosford Park is a film where there's always a lot going on. There are a ton of characters and many plot threads, there are things happening in the background while other things happen in the foreground, there are things happening which aren't being directly remarked upon, and the film opens by tossing viewers into the deep end, charging forward with its story and making the audience work to catch up on who's who and how everyone is connected to each other. Like many Altman films, it's a glorious cacophony of sights and sounds, so deftly navigated by Altman and writer Julian Fellowes that it almost looks easy, though surely few filmmakers would be able to pull something like this off even half as well. Even after 15 years and 6 seasons of the film's spiritual successor, Downton Abbey, Gosford Park still feels like a breath of fresh air, a film humming with life, humor, and pathos.

Unfolding over a few days in November of 1932, Gosford Park takes place at the titular location, a grand country estate belonging to Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Other residents of the house include their daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), and an army of servants, including Jennings (Alan Bates), Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), and Elsie (Emily Watson), all of whom are preparing for the arrival of the guests, and their servants, for a weekend hunting party. Those guests include Sylvia's aunt, the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) and her maid, Mary (Kelly Macdonald), Sylvia's two sisters, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) and Lavinia (Natasha Wightman) and their husbands, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander), Lord Stockbridge's valet Parks (Clive Owen), Ivan Novello (Jeremy Northam), an actor who has brought along Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), an American producer, and his valet Henry (Ryan Phillippe), and Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) and his wife, Mabel (Claudie Blakeley). There are many sources of tension over the course of the weekend, stemming from as many things as the extra-marital relationships of the hosts and their guests, the financial difficulties of both Meredith and Nesbitt, the servants' universal distrust of Henry, and Mrs. Wilson's suspicions about Parks' identity, as well as Parks' own possibly nefarious intentions. And this is all before Sir William turns up dead and the film turns into a murder mystery to be solved (or not) by Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry).

With its story spread out among characters from two distinct social classes (three, I suppose, if you count the Americans as being in a class of their own), Gosford Park clearly has the issue of class on its mind, which it explores in both explicit and more subtle fashion. Explicitly, it acknowledges the impossible position that the people of the servant class are in in terms of mobility, locked in place by the circumstances of their birth, just one generation among many before and after who will be servants. There are few paths open to them generally, fewer still for the women who also have to negotiate the thorny territory of attracting the interest of powerful men, something which many of the female characters have historically had to do with Sir Michael. When he's revealed to have made a mini-industry out of spiriting away the children he's sired by his female employees and placing them in an orphanage, it speaks to just how far his power, and the power of people like him, extends. He isn't just above the people who work for him socially, he has an implicit ownership over their bodies and their fates (and this is to say nothing of the question of whether all of the women involved were consenting, or if consent would even have been possible in the circumstances). Yet, this sense of ownership is given to the members of the upper class so casually, as merely a part of the natural order of things, that they don't even notice it. Late in the film, Meredith goes down to the servants' area to pout and laments to one of the maids that people like him (people who started rich but have become less rich over time) never get the breaks, completely oblivious to the fact that he's complaining about where his own choices have brought him to to someone who has never had any choices at all. The class system that defines the lives of the characters is as strong and unassailable as it is not just because it is rooted in hundreds of years of history, but because those who exist inside of it are also blind to it in so many respects.

The characters (mostly the lower class characters, because those in a subservient position see their superiors with more clarity than their superiors see them) speak directly to issues of class, but the film also speaks to those issues in indirect ways. The whole opening sequence, while also functioning to establish Mary as the naive outsider through whose eyes we'll see a good deal of the story, is a great example of this because the film just stands back and watches the way that Mary is treated and the fact that no one even blinks an eye about it. To wit, it's pouring rain as the Countess Trentham is preparing to leave her home for Gosford Park and, after helping the chauffeur get the top on the car, Mary has to stand outside in the rain waiting for the Countess to be ushered to the car (under an umbrella, of course) and then get settled before she herself can get into the car and then, while they're en route, the car is pulled over to the shoulder of the road so that Mary can get out and walk to the back door to take the thermos that the Countess has brought and get the top unscrewed, and then she has to continue standing there when Novello's car pulls up alongside them and he and Weiss ask if everything is okay and then have a quick conversation with the Countess. It is still raining while all of this is happening and Mary is getting soaked, a fact which everyone around her seems to be purposely ignoring, signalling that her comfort is beneath their notice.

But for as much as Gosford Park is about the class distinction between the masters and the servants, it's about several other kinds of class distinctions as well, as the characters find ways to create hierarchies within hierarchies to keep themselves separated from and ranked above people around them. Among the Gosford staff, there's a distinction between the kitchen workers who carry on under the supervision of Mrs. Croft, the maids who work under Mrs. Wilson, and the valets and footmen under Jennings, and Jennings, Mrs. Wilson, and Mrs. Croft have their own hierarchy. The McCordles and their guests rank themselves according to their various titles and, though Gosford is his estate and though everyone is coming to him with their hand out for financial assistance, because of his background as someone who has "new" money attained through industry and war profiteering, rather than inheritance, Sir William is at the same time looked down on by those around him as being coarse in comparison to their finer blood and breeding. There are also the distinctions made between the aristocrats and the "entertainers," with Novello literally having to sing for his supper while he and Weissman are treated with amused disdain, and Weissman is marked by his "otherness" (being American and being Jewish); and between the aristocrats and the authorities, with Inspector Thompson showing up and being ignored by the aristocrats every time he opens his mouth as if he's unworthy of their attention - only to turn it around and take the opposite role in his interactions with his junior officer, ignoring and dismissing him every time he tries to point out some irrelevant thing like a clue.

With a cast as stacked with talented players as Gosford Park is, the film enjoys an embarrassment of riches on a performance level, though only Mirren and Smith would receive Oscar nominations for their performances (ultimately losing to Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind). Both nominations were deserved, as Smith is a delight as the Countess, whose desperation over her precarious financial situation breaks through her sharp, shady facade every one in a while, and Mirren delivers a beautifully subdued and restrained performance (in the years since this film came out, it's become so customary to see great Mirren performances that I'd actually forgotten just how good this one really is until rewatching the film), but you could easily switch them out with Watson, who is so commanding as the jaded, not-here-for-the-bullshit Elsie, and Macdonald as the wide-eyed and inexperienced Mary, or Scott Thomas as the sharp and cold Lady Sylvia and Blakley as Mabel, who is trying to hold it together in the face of constant reminders that her husband despises and is embarrassed by her. That so many actors can carve out great, distinct performances (and I'm including the wonderful performances from Bates, Gambon, Owen, Balaban, and Fry when I say that) says it all about how well Gosford Park is able to draw its characters even though it unfolds with something akin to Hemingway's iceberg theory of storytelling, where just enough of the story plays out above the surface to suggest the vastness of the story underneath. In a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Altman made several films that can be classified as masterpieces and the witty, perfectly executed Gosford Park certainly deserves to be considered one of them.

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