It was a hot humid day, and the prospect for a cool evening by the waterfront watching fireworks seemed too unlikely to consider. Traditionally we spent this holiday evening with our friends Fran and Kevin. Since the kids were infants we’d done this, first buying a selection of our own rockets and later attending the local celebration, but this year we thought we’d simply get a bottle of wine, some munchies and a movie and sit in air-conditioned comfort. The kids, now grown, could fend for themselves. We rented Gosford Park. It was a film we had talked about going to see when it played the theater, but we’d missed it. Gosford Park it was.
Robert Altman is one of the most inventive directors working today. For over 30 years he’s been delivering thought-provoking, controversial, and beautiful works of cinema. His oeuvre has been, though, a virtual study of the American way of life. From Nashville to M*A*S*H and from Buffalo Bill & the Indians to The Player, his work has dealt with aspects of the American myth. Country music as a political tool; Korea standing in for Viet Nam in a powerful anti-war statement; the politics of celebrity; and the power of Hollywood. Altman has searched through the history of the USA and used traditional genres of film-making to comment thereon. As traditional as the genres he chose might have been, in Altman’s hand they were turned upside-down, and sideways. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie became anti-hero and opium addict in Altman’s “western” McCabe & Mrs. Miller, set to the music of Leonard Cohen! A laconic Elliott Gould became Raymond Chandler’s private dick Phillip Marlowe in an updated LA for Altman’s “detective” classic The Long Goodbye. Robert Altman has been the most American of directors, and now, in Gosford Park, he takes on the English country house murder mystery. Altman’s Agatha Christie film? What could this mean?
The film begins, as do most studies of murder in British society, by setting the tale. We meet an inordinate number of people (an Altman trait) who come and go with little logic. This is a common enough ploy in the films of Robert Altman, everyone has a reason for being there, and everyone has a story. Pay attention. We meet the Lord and Lady of the manor (played by Michael Gambon and a haunted-looking [but still beautiful] Kristin Scott-Thomas), who are hosting a party at their home at Gosford Park. We meet their servants, headman Jennings, taciturn and stiff, Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper, a woman whose beauty has been wasted in the service of others… Helen Mirren was nominated for an Oscar for this role, she is remarkable. As the guests arrive they are introduced one at a time…although they come in pairs. The first person is the guest, the second his or her servant. Maggie Smith plays the snobbish Countess of Trentham, who has come to the party looking to make sure her allowance is continued. Her maid is the shy, young Scottish girl Mary Maceachren (played by Kathy MacDonald in a wonderful star turn). All the guests have an agenda; each of their servants has one too.
Altman, and co-producer Bob Balaban (who helped conceive the story and plays a major role) wanted to “get it right”, and hired consultants who had served in an estate during the 30s, when the action takes place. The relationships seem perfect. The cross-cultural relationships are played one way, the inter-cultural another. Balaban plays an American. The producer of Charlie Chan films, he has wrangled an invitation to the weekend’s events to research his next film. He is a fish out of water. He needs the phone to call the coast. He doesn’t understand the deep tradition which drives the house and its occupants. He has brought his own valet, a young Scotsman (played by Ryan Philippe) whose familiar banter with his “master” sends alarms through Gosford’s radar. Sweet Mary confesses she’s never heard a Scot’s accent like his. Balaban represents Altman, in a way, who comes to this unfamiliar tableau, to observe.
Gosford Park takes its own time, and follows each character to develop each one as deeply as is possible in two short hours. Altman is a master of this kind of ensemble work. Even the minor characters are delineated with a camel-hair brush. Look for the lusty scullery maid; she’s fantastic! By the time the murder is committed, the viewer has been lulled into wondering just what the mystery might be. In fact, there are so many herrings, some red, some multi-colored, none black and white! Altman, and his screenwriter are masters of suspense. Julien Fellowes won an Academy Award for his script!
Late in the film, the detective arrives. Played by Stephen Fry, the Inspector is a bumbling twit, who is so overwhelmed by just being in the presence of the upper-class, he has no idea that they might be guilty of the same thoughts, emotions and crimes as anyone else. His uniformed assistant continually points to clues which the inspector ignores. It adds a slapstick side to the story, which is welcome and refreshing.
There’s no point in trying to explain the plot. Someone is killed, there are any number of motives. Anyone might be guilty. It doesn’t matter. The people are the key. The characters are real; you care about them. You know what could happen to that randy pot scrubber, and you feel for her; just as you sympathise with Mary, and Mrs. Wilson, and Jennings, and… One nice twist is the use of Ivor Novello as a character in the story. Novello was an English actor and songwriter who appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s first success, The Lodger. His character appears here 10 years on, without a recent success, but still a star in the eyes of the downstairs group. The upstairs people have invited him more as an attraction, in case the action slows down. Portrayed by Jeremy Northam, Novello sits at the piano and sings. The songs he performs are the real songs Novello wrote. It’s a clever feature.
The DVD includes a wealth of special features including director’s commentary, deleted scenes, and interviews with cast and crew. But the real treasure is the film. Gosford Park is an intelligent and beautiful comment on class and the human experience. I heartily recommend it.
(USA Flims, 2001)