Gosford Park is a deconstruction of class and social attitudes in early 20th-century England, masquerading as a droll murder mystery in the classic tradition of British detective fiction. The masquerade is paper-thin; director Robert Altman (Short Cuts) isn’t really interested in the murder, nor are his enormous cast of characters. “Well he wasn’t exactly Father Christmas” is one typically dismissive comment about the dead man.
Much more shocking than the murder, in fact, is a single remark in a dining room, where the guests sit around the table talking. What makes this remark so shocking is that it comes from one of the servants standing nearby, who unexpectedly blurts out her own thoughts before checking herself, then trails off in mid-sentence, realizing her mistake. There is appalled silence, both from the guests, who’ve just been affronted by a servant addressing them like an equal, and also from the other servants in the room, who realize they’ve just witnessed one of their own lose her job.
It’s this dynamic that Altman is really interested in, not “whodunit.” Or, if Altman does care whodunit, it’s only insofar as the answer illuminates the film’s real themes of snobbery and resentment, exploitation and interdependence, privilege and privation.
Set in 1932, the story unfolds on the gracious country estate of elderly Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his much younger wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), where a throng of guests have been invited for a week-long shooting party. Like the class-conscious 1970s TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” Gosford Park follows the parallel lives of the servants “below stairs” and those whom they serve “above stairs.” This means 20 or 30 different characters and their situations to follow, but Altman masterfully keeps them all in motion, like a consummate juggler.
Upstairs guests include the scene-stealing Constance (Maggie Smith), an aging but penniless countess whose relentlessly withering remarks suggest infinite weariness with the grave deficiencies of others; Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, who co-wrote the screenplay with Altman), a Hollywood producer theoretically doing field research for his next Charlie Chan movie who in fact spends nearly all his time either on the phone or waiting for a phone call; and real-life ’30’s Hollywood idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who cheerfully adds atmosphere by banging out tune after tune on the piano, whether Constance wants him to or not.
Downstairs, there’s the butler Jennings (Alan Bates), who like Altman himself keeps everything moving in impeccable order; head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), briskly and almost frighteningly competent; and Elsie (Emily Watson), the heavy-set head housemaid whose chin juts defiantly as she asks “Why do we spend our lives living through them?” but herself relishes the furtive affair she carries on in the pantry with one of the above-stairs set.
Nearly all the guests come with maids and valets, who are below stairs known not by their own names but by the names of their masters, emphasizing their lack of personal identity. One of these (Ryan Phillippe), valet to the Charlie Chan producer, has a silky Scottish burr and doesn’t seem to know his place. The other servants don’t like him, and they like him even less when they learn more about him; but he soon catches the eye of the hostess, Lady Sylvia, who asks him to fetch her some warm milk to help her sleep. “I’ll probably still be awake at 1 am,” she tells him suggestively, and he takes the hint, showing up at her bedroom door at promptly 1 am.
There’s something of the air of an exposé about Gosford Park. As in The Player and Ready to Wear, Altman mercilessly satirizes a whole culture and way of life, along the way finding not a single nice thing to say about anyone or anything involved. Unlike those earlier films, Altman is here sending up a way of life that no longer exists, that is indeed on the brink of nonexistence when his story takes place. For Altman, the demise of English country living mirrors the demise of the murder victim: Who cares?
“Who cares?” is about how I started to think I might be feeling about the whole business when the detective arrived on the scene. Stephen Fry’s Inspector Thompson may strike some as hilariously funny, but I found him a jarringly broad and ridiculous caricature out of place in a production until then characterized by restraint and subtlety. It’s in the figure of Inspector Thompson that Altman most clearly distances himself from the goals and interests of the traditional British murder mystery; this is no Holmes or Whimsey, no Poirot or Fr. Brown. He’s more like Clouseau; and for me at least, it didn’t work.
Even if you’re paying attention and figure out what’s going on long before the dénouement, Gosford Park is so complex and in many ways ambiguous you’re not likely to be satisfied by a single viewing. Whether you’ll be motivated to go back for a second is an open question. I’d maybe like to see it again, I guess, and try to get a better handle on how I feel about it.
Unfortunately, Gosford Park comes to theaters amid such a heavy press of films that I know I won’t find time to see it again until it comes out on DVD/VHS. Having only seen it once, I find myself wondering: Was it biting social satire, or was it only smug and misanthropic?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.