Gosford Park
review by Sean Axmaker, 4 January 2002

Robert Altman blazed his cinematic trail through the seventies by deconstructing and demystifying genres, at once satirizing or undercutting the conventions while excavating the dramatic weight under the quirks and the comedy of his surfaces. The sprawling casts and weaving stories and roaming camerawork became a trademark, and perhaps a weakness. Confronted with a story and script as meaty and rich as Nashville, he and his cast had a solid core to spin their improvisations and character explorations around and his weave brought out dramatic designs and colors impossible in more formal structures. When working with lesser scripts that paraded the quirkiness of characters in place of personality (think A Wedding and Health, all that was left was color and cleverness. Even Altman enthusiasts generally agree that his last top-flight work was the 1993 Short Cuts, a rich and restless film that I nonetheless find sour and lacking in the empathy of his best works of the 1970s and 80s. I last saw the genius of Altman in his brilliant HBO shot-on-the-run mini-series Tanner, a magnificent political satire written with sharp wit by Garry Trudeau and infused by Altman with the generosity of character that makes casts ready to dive deep within caricatures and draw out living, breathing people full of the passions and contradictions that make us human.

Gosford Park is a twenty-first-century return to form for Robert Altman, a sprawling character piece in the costume drama idiom remade into that gorgeous Altman weave of humanity. On the surface it looks like a wry, devious twist on the Merchant-Ivory genre by way of Upstairs Downstairs and a shaggy Agatha Christie mystery, but underneath is a kind of Rules of the Game, with Altman's personal take on the humanist understanding that "everybody has their reasons."

The Gosford Park of the title is a the manor house of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), the working class industrialist who made his millions and married into the aristocracy. Our entry into the social shark infested world of his hangers-on are Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), a creaky old dowager clinging to privilege though she has little money, and her young maid Mary Maceachran (Kelly MacDonald), a naïf altogether uneducated in way of social convention. Constance has such a young, untrained girl because she's cheap, but through all her disdain and cynicism and cutting remarks about both the masters and the servants around her, she can sense she kind of likes the youth and naïveté of Mary. They make quite the pair, with Constance hanging on Mary's gossip from the servants quarters with perhaps the only smile she cracks all weekend, and Mary getting an earful of the aristocratic naughtiness from Constance, a born gossip.

Constance is aunt to Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), Sir William's haughty, fanged wife, an aristocrat of the most bigoted, class-conscious breeding who never fails to belittles him in front of company. In fact the entire clan of Lady Sylvia's relatives only mask their contempt for the boorish working-class man made good, as if his common stock was some kind of affront to their cultured existence. His tastes and talk still echo with the rawness of the street and they hate him all the more because it's his money and his work that allows them their lives of leisure. Among the leeches that have gathered to alternately insult him and beg for his money are Sylvia's two sisters Louisa, Lady Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville) and Lady Lavinia Meredith (Natasha Wightman) and their husbands Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and Lt. Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander), the horrid Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) who married the daughter of a factory owner only to discover her family fortune a pittance, and Lord Rupert (Laurence Fox), a penniless aristocrat courting William's daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) while his status-conscious friend Jeremy Blond (Trent Ford) insists he can do better. A sort of emotional feeding frenzy leaves the social waters bloody as Sylvia lords her family name and manners over her grumpy, uncouth husband, while Freddy's sneering jabs at his wife's common roots are even nastier than those Sylvia slaps in the face of her husband. All the while Constance spouts a steady stream of withering remarks, dropping her commentaries with an almost dotty disregard for the emotional damage they leave in their wake.

While the titled jockey for position upstairs, Mary is swept into an entirely different world of class distinction downstairs. The faded upper-crust bourgeois boors cling mightily to this outdated system of privilege and rank and class ("He thinks he's God almighty," sneers footman George [Richard E Grant in fine snotty form] about Sir William. "They all do.") and their servants seem to have caught the disease. Head manservant Jennings (Alan Bates) and housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) hold their own kind of court downstairs, right down to the seating arrangements at the table. They hold with the old ways, thus the servants are called by the names of their masters and are seated by their hierarchical importance ("Since when does a Baronet outrank a Duchess?" sniffs Jennings as he puts Mary in her "rightful" place near the head of the table). The pecking order is only complicated by the arrival of guests' servants, including the hawklike valet Robert Parks (Clive Owen), a fiercely detached man with a pride bordering on insolence that the house servants would love to cut down, and the pushy, suspicious Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), a valet whose phony Scottish accent and unprofessional behavior make him a mystery and an outcast. Only the cook, Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), and Probert (Derek Jacobi), Sir William's valet, seems to be above the fray. Croft has her one little world in the kitchen staff and clashes constantly with Mrs. Wilson, while Probst, for all his manners and sense of decorum, is oddly egalitarian with all of the servants. Off on her own is Elsie (Emily Watson), the plain-spoken housemaid who takes a protective interest in Mary and her misguided fantasies of the aristocracy. She's Mary's guide through the intricacies of the mock aristocracy upstairs, much like Constance upstairs.

The salve between the classes is self-described court jester Ivor Novello, the real life actor and music hall singer (the only historical figure in the cast) played with deft self-mocking deference by Jeremy Northam. He sings his silly little ditties to a room full of titled snobs too high class to enjoy his lovely voice  ("Don't encourage him," sniffs Maggie Smith) while the hired help crowds around the doors enchanted by the ridiculous songs and his film star fame. Such matters of popular fame are, naturally, too coarse to be acknowledged by the aristocrats, but they bring a giddy schoolgirl rush to Mary. Altman manages this balancing act throughout the film, both appreciating and satirizing class difference while always maintaining the dignity of the individuals.

A perfect example is American producer Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban), brought to party by Novello.
Weisman is here to soak up a little atmosphere for his new Charlie Chan film but is oddly, wonderfully oblivious to the class distinctions around him. Addressing servants as "Mr." ("No, it's just Jennings, sir") and conversing with titled aristocrats as if they were but mere mortals, he's at once too thick-headed to pick up on the very atmosphere he came to study and too American to want to. Balaban plays Weisman as part classless American rube, the butt of jokes of class conscious guests he doesn't even notice, and part egalitarian everyman of the new world.

The drama heads into Rules of the Game territory with a morning bird shoot that quotes Renoir's famous hunting scene, with an appropriately deflating twist. Sir William is "nicked" by a bullet ("They probably drew cards for William," Constance drolly suggests to Lady Sylvia). Is it the hint of an assassination attempt or pure chance? Before the morning there will be a murder and the list of suspects that makes it a veritable game of "Clue," with a clueless police Inspector (Stephen Fry) fumbling for answers. He's an obsequious snob who ignores his working-class assistant's insights, holds that servants are below his interest, and tiptoes around the titled guests like a toady. In delicious Altman fashion the tidy little mystery will be gleefully turned on its head in a manner that would make Miss Marple spin in her grave. The final solution might seem far fetched in less sensitive hands, but Altman makes the dramatic anchor so solid that it doesn't merely work as an answer to the narrative riddle, but as a heartbreaking revelation of character.

The mystery is, in the words of another famous auteur, pure Maguffin. More revealing is the way protocol is shattered over and over again: by housemaid Elsie, who impulsively leaps to the defense of Sir William during one of Sylvia's cutting tirades, denying her servility in front of the aristocrats and inadvertently revealing her affair with William (which was known to all but politely ignored until this moment); by the mystery valet Henry, whose phony accent and curious relationship to his American master is revealed to be what both servant and served view as a betrayal; by Novello, who acknowledges his role as social curiosity with a smile somewhere between bemusement and wounded pride, yet plays and sings his dumb little songs (and he knows they are silly) as if for a rapt nightclub audience.

Altman is working with an almost entirely new crew here, many culled appropriately enough from Britain: cinematographer Andrew Dunn (The Madness of King George), composer Patrick Doyle (Sense and Sensibility, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet), and Merchant-Ivory costume designer Jenny Beavan, along with Ang Lee's regular editor Tim Squyres, join Robert's longtime production designer (and son) Stephen Altman to sculpt a film in different key. While the film is quintessentially Altman, with his trademark searching camera weaving the stories together and alighting briefly on telling background details, there's a different feel to it as well, and perhaps just a bit more distance. Where he usually luxuriates in rich bright colors, there's a muted palette here and an art direction in white and brown. 

He's also working with a new screenwriter, Julian Fellows, who scripted from a story idea by Bob Balaban and Robert Altman. Finally, after playing with the cute, inoffensive, and paper-thin eccentrics of such films as Cookie's Fortune and Dr. T and the Women, he's working from a script worthy of his talents, and he's inspired. With a story rooted in real drama, characters painted in varying shades of gray, and a setting rife for social satire with a bite, he's building a film on a foundation that can support character drama of substance.

What he finally delivers is his most rounded set of characters since Nashville. The cast is huge and putting names to faces and structuring the pecking order is made no easier by the "old ways" (servants are called by their masters' names in the downstairs), but Altman manages to illustrate such distinctions in the everyday, face-to-face conversations: you don't have to memorize the relationships when you can see it played out their behavior. More than master versus servant and self-important stuffed shirts (both upstairs and downstairs) waiting to be punctured, this is the story of people trapped by the limitations in their own sense of identity, in a world of petrified codes of class cracking and crumbling before their eyes. It's Rules of the Game with a hearty sense of sympathy for the players and a willingness to look beyond the facades to find the beating hearts inside. Everyone has their reasons, but Altman is more interested in their vulnerabilities, their resolve, their fears. For the first time in years I feel living, breathing, scared, angry, curious, callous, determined, uncaring, deeply caring, wounded and wanting characters radiate from the screen, neither hero nor villain, but a whole box of surprises.


Click here to read the interview with Robert Altman.

Directed by:
Robert Altman

Eileen Atkins
Bob Balaban
Claudie Blakley
Charles Dance
Stephen Fry
Michael Gambon
Richard E. Grant
Tom Hollander
Derek Jacobi
Kelly Macdonald
Helen Mirren
Jeremy Northam
Clive Owen
Ryan Phillippe
Camilla Rutherford
Maggie Smith
Geraldine Somerville
Kristin Scott Thomas
Sophie Thompson
Emily Watson
Natasha Wightman
James Wilby

Written by:
Julian Fellowes

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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