Gosford Park (2001)

Director: Robert Altman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There aren’t many types or genres of film Robert Altman didn’t tackle, but at the time he and Bob Balaban conceived the idea for Gosford Park, he had yet to direct a whodunit. Thus, the idea of a traditional murder mystery at an English country estate a la Agatha Christie appealed to Altman, but as a humanist director who was always much more interested in character than plot, he characteristically turned this genre on end.

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Altman gives us a film full of people with a motive for murder, and some portentous shots of bottles of poison and a scene in which the kitchen staff discover a knife is missing. Yet, we are well into the film before the fatal deed occurs. Rather than present a straightforward crime showcasing a traditional effort at a solution, Altman prefers to handle the crime perfunctorily, in Altman’s words, as an “it was done” and concentrate on the various personal mysteries that broaden the genre into a teeming microcosm of passions and betrayals. As an added bonus, Altman manages to subvert the genre entirely by turning its imposing police inspector into a minor character without a detecting bone in his body.

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“The butler did it,” Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) says to an unseen, unheard Hollywood honcho in California just as Mr. Jennings (Alan Bates), butler at the English country estate where Weissman is a weekend guest, passes by. Weissman produces Charlie Chan pictures and has wrangled an invitation to do research for his next film through movie star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who is related to the head of the household, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon). Here is Altman indulging his perennial delight in sending up the denizens of Hollywood, as Weissman, a homosexual vegetarian who would have taken to cellphones like a fly to shit, exists oblivious to his insignificance in this aristocratic, snobbish, hypermasculine gathering of flesh eaters who intend to shoot dozens of grouse and pheasants from the sky as part of their weekend recreation.

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Weissman and his valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), seem to be the only ones at the McCordle mansion who don’t seem to know where they fit in the grand scheme of things. Yet England is a country in transition as well. The relics of the British Empire are still evident—the massive estate, the hereditary aristocrats and their servants who descend on it for the weekend, the house staff who manage the weekend party in the “old ways” by calling visiting servants by the surname of their employers and seating them according to their employers’ rank at the below-stairs dinner table. Yet, the time is the 1930s, and England has lost its cocksure vigor in the debacle of the Great War. When the subject of the war comes up, William’s statement, “I did my part,” means that he made himself rich enough in business to buy himself some class, namely his blueblood wife Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Their visiting relatives are near financial ruin or dependent on William’s largesse to maintain the style they previously assumed as a birthright. And there is nothing meaner than elites in the throes of losing their entitlements.

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The oldest of the old guard is Lady Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), who makes her new lady’s maid Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald) stand unprotected in a bone-chilling downpour as she herself is escorted under an umbrella into her coach; she forces the young woman out again during the journey to open a stubborn thermos for her. Constance is as mean as a spitting snake, insisting Mary share house gossip with her and cutting her “inferiors” down to size. For example, she loudly criticizes the “common” Mabel Nesbitt’s (Claudie Blakely) limited wardrobe, though Mabel can’t afford to expand it because her fortune-hunting husband Freddie (James Wilby) has run through all the money settled on her by her merchant father. Freddie is romancing Sylvia and William’s daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), and appeals to her for a loan. Mabel comforts herself listening to Novello play and sing his own tunes, as Constance snipes from the bridge game that he never knows when to stop.

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Sylvia hates her husband, confiding that she and her sister Lavinia (Natasha Wightman) cut cards to see who would get him. Sylvia encourages Denton to come to her bedroom, and is indifferent to William’s affair with Elsie (Emily Watson), Isobel’s lady’s maid. Lavinia’s nearly bankrupt husband Tony (Tom Hollander) is desperate to have William finance a business venture in the Sudan, and Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance) insinuates that he would like to be hired as a translator and cultural expert. None of their machinations seem to matter, however, as William has decided to pull out of the scheme altogether. It is only after this drawn-out look at the large cast of characters and the minutely observed workings of an old-style aristocratic household that Altman finally decides to kill someone.

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Altman is keenly interested in examining the dynamics of power. In addition to familial struggles and old versus new money, he sets his sights on the ruling class versus the servant class and men versus women. Strikingly, we see that there is an entire industry dedicated to addressing the smallest private whim of a single family. We watch the McCordles and their guests assemble for a meal and some leisurely lounging around, and then follow the large staff of resident and guest servants working extremely hard to create this leisure of their “betters.” An entire room is devoted to cleaning and shining their employers’ shoes. A shortage of homemade marmalade has housekeeper Jane Wilson (Helen Mirren) concerned. Yes, the servants are paid for their services, but they are, nonetheless, victims of the imbalance of power in the relationship. Henry Denton may come to Sylvia’s bed chamber, but he would be instantly sacked if he were discovered in the wing that houses the female servants. When the servants are betrayed by Denton, they exact a small revenge on him. At a time of socialist agitation across Europe and the United States, it’s easy to see the foolishness of Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) in dismissing the servants as suspects for not “being close” to the victim.

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At the same time, male dominance is a problem both above and below stairs. William is a serial seducer of both the females working in his factories and those on his house staff. Elsie confides to Mary that William has numerous bastards from factory workers he forced to give up their babies or face dismissal. Elsie’s affection for him gets the better of her when she defends him from Sylvia’s attacks at the dinner table; she immediately flees the dining room and prepares to leave the household for this breach of etiquette, not expecting William to intercede on her behalf. Even the likeable Robert Parks (Clive Owen), Lord Stockbridge’s valet, presses a kiss on Mary. Despite what appears to be a small, but mutual attraction between the pair—and our desire as an audience to see that attraction acted upon—this kiss isn’t that different from Denton trying to force himself on the inexperienced Mary. In this film, sex is largely a commodity and an instrument of domination.

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Altman’s gift for large set pieces is beautifully on display. The hunting party is rhythmically choreographed, as we watch the drummers flush the birds from the bushes and into the sky, only to spin toward the ground following a rifle report. Balaban plays the perfect buffoon as he, the vegetarian in a fur coat, watches the slaughter with horror and then panics when several slain birds nearly fall on top of him. The viciousness of the hunt reflects as little else can the ruthlessness of the class of men who indulge in it as sport.

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Much more appetizing is the extended performance of Jeremy Northam singing and playing several charming tunes by Ivor Novello. The servants gather at the edges of the drawing room and in the kitchen stairwell to listen and dance, scurrying away whenever one of the guests walks nearby or through a door. Music is a staple in many of Altman’s films, and I’m inclined to think that he asked Julian Fellowes to write Novello into the script just so that he would have a chance to use his songs and air Northam’s genuinely wonderful voice and interpretive skills. But Fellowes shrewdly uses the set piece as the innocent interlude during which to stage the murder.

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It was also extremely clever to take the bloom off the image of the intuitively brilliant British detective by making Fry’s character a complete imbecile who exasperates the diligent Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) by failing to understand what a clue is. Dexter sees a broken cup and saucer on the ground and calls it to Det. Thompson’s attention, only to be told that the servants will clean it up. Fry, a skilled comic, milks these scenes for all they’re worth, and provides a needed contrast with the real detective in the house, one with a true depth of understanding about human nature.

Gosford Park represents another superior ensemble piece in the Altman oeuvre as well as another believable world created down to the smallest detail. While his technique of overlapping dialogue can be an impediment to those not familiar with a variety of British accents, its effectiveness in breathing life into film is as great as ever. Gosford Park is delightful and deep. l

  • Patrick spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 10:43 am

    Funny, in your next to last paragraph you singled out for praise my least favorite part of this movie – the bumbling detective. I just don’t accept that such buffoonish people exist in real life, at least they don’t work their way up to detective, that character seems more caricature than actual person. The movie didn’t work for me for some reason and I haven’t seen it since it was released so it’s grown a bit fuzzy in my brain, maybe I thought he was trying too hard to make a statement about corruption in the upper class or something.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 10:54 am

    Patrick – I can’t really argue with you on these points. Fry was definitely going very broad with this character. There was a lot of improvisation in the film, and I wonder if Altman might have thought he had a Peter Sellers/Strangelove on his hands. But I still enjoyed the idea that a Christie-like film would send up the superhuman sleuths we’re so used to seeing, which are caricatures themselves. As for overdoing the corruption of the upper class, I don’t really think that was the case. Plus, below stairs was not much better. I think the entire film reflects the decline and fall of the British Empire rather handily, the financial and moral bankruptcy of system the British ruling class thought the epitome of human civilization. The film didn’t really humanize the elites, choosing to focus mainly on the contemptible characters of Constance, Sylvia, and Freddie – William is problematic, as Elsie thinks he’s all right, though clearly he isn’t – and that might be a problem. But Altman’s films often deal with corrupt systems and moral ambiguity. I think he was also going for the archness of the murder mystery, so the elements maybe didn’t mix as well as they could have. Still, it’s a favorite of mine.

  • Craig spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 1:52 pm

    This is my favorite movie from Altman’s “late” period, and I thought the detective was a brilliant mirroring of the film’s themes.
    Altman, as always, was biting in his satire (if somewhat less mean-spirited as he got older), but I think “Gosford Park” isn’t about class corruption so much the hypocrisy of social stratification in the first place: that beneath the strata, the uppers and lowers have a good deal in common and are not infrequently related by blood.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 2:29 pm

    I agree, Craig, that the detective mirrored the themes, though it wasn’t really necessary. The stratification was clearly spelled out already. I just enjoyed seeing Fry go back to his comic roots.
    Certainly any sort of judging of worth comes with the almost inescapable risk of hypocrisy. Vera Drake is another example; I’m sure we could list dozens in cinematic history and in real life.

  • Rod spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 8:37 pm

    For a much better, more concise and trenchant approach to the same variety of material, I recommend Alan Bridges’ The Shooting Party from 1985.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 10:35 pm

    I haven’t seen that film, Rod, but I read Ebert’s review of it, and it doesn’t seem to be after the same objective as Altman’s film. Gosford Park was Altman’s attempt at a genre film – a murder mystery. Concision is not something one should look for in that type of film, and certainly not from Altman. One of the very great pleasures of many Altman films is their teeming liveliness.

  • Rod spoke:
    2nd/01/2010 to 10:55 pm

    Altman said of this film when it was released that it partly a homage to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which reveals the underlying pretension to offering a study of a fading social clique just before WW2. This makes it both thematically similar to The Shooting Party and very similar in terms of milieu – the evocation of coming bloodshed in the bird shoot, the subtly crumbling class barriers, etc. The Agatha Christie framework is merely the gimmick that sells it, and I don’t think the film does anything remotely profound with interrogating that genre: the idiot detective is so badly at odds with the rest of the film’s tone it just about killed the movie for me. I also found the scenario self-defeating in its clutter, like many of Altman’s lesser works, sapping the film’s potential for emotional or intellectual force. What is there is 90% pizzazz.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/01/2010 to 9:36 am

    That may have been what Altman said, but Balaban said something quite different. That there are thematic similarities to Renoir’s film is undeniable, but this film was set after the war, and that is a crucial difference. We are confronted with war profiteers, people who have climbed simply because they have money. The British way of life, thought to be the epitome of civilization, had been defeated. There isn’t a gentlemanly gesture in the entire film.
    As for Fry, you’re right about the tone. But he comes so late and stays so little, that it would be churlish to toss the baby out with the bathwater on that one. And as I’ve said, it was an amusing send-up of the super sleuth caricature.
    What you see as clutter, I see as a world created, an almost ethnographic study. It was dizzying, yes, but that is a delight of this film. That the final film was more Christie than Renoir was just fine with me.

  • Craig spoke:
    3rd/01/2010 to 12:09 pm

    The scenes between the detective and constable are also important because they lead to a key scene late in the film where the latter confronts Alan Bates’s character over his cowardice. This plays into what Marilyn noted about the illusory post-war culture in Britain at the time.
    Altman and Balaban gave the screenwriter Julian Fellowes only a few specific instructions (paraphrasing) “Everybody gathers together on an estate in Britain, and somebody gets killed….twice.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/01/2010 to 12:56 pm

    Craig – Actually, I had a problem with that confrontation. It seemed gratuitous. While it might have revealed that a butler serving the great British civilization might not have believed in the War to End Wars, by the 30s, the ludicrousness and waste of the endeavor was apparent. While Jennings might have castigated himself continually, it’s hard to believe a constable would have taken him to task for it, except out of some weird spite. I have to take that scene through so many conjectures, that it simply doesn’t hold up for me.

  • Rick spoke:
    4th/01/2010 to 10:41 am

    I agree with Craig: this is Altman’s most accomplished late-period film. But though I never read Balaban’s take on it, I always viewed it as a class satire first and murder mystery a distant second. And I remember “The Long Goodbye” as his first detective story, though it wasn’t a parlor mystery like “Gosford.” But like any Altman film, I don’t remember plot points (i.e., who killed who) nearly as much as I do the dialog, the interactions between characters, and his politival
    I was struck, reading your very good piece, about obvious homages to “Rules of the Game”: the vicious hunt — obviously — but also the Jeremy Northam scene where the servants gather around the edges and watch the upper-crust at play. That mirrors the scene of the ridiculous “theater performance” in “Rules” rather nicely.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/01/2010 to 11:08 am

    Rick – I really need to see Rules of the Game again to pick up these moments that have flitted out of my brain. As for whether it’s a satire, well, I’m afraid there’s too much misery for me to really call it that. Hollywood and Christie are clearly satirized, but class, no, I think Altman plays that straight.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 9:23 am

    Thank you for you thorough, if wrong-headed opinion of Gosford Park, Nick. Though I will agree that it was difficult to like most of the characters, both upstairs and downstairs.

  • Nick spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 8:56 am

    Over the weekend I decided to make space on my video recorder for the new Mad Men series about to begin on BBC 4.

    I found I had recorded Gosford Park some months earlier but had refrained from watching until now because of a reluctance to engage with the oleaginous antics of Stephen Fry. The National Treasure did not disappoint; he was awful! In that respect he was representative of the whole project. Gosford Park was more interesting to read about afterwards than to watch.

    What I observed was a confusing example of Upstairs /Downstairs Brownian motion. Each particle had had its details elaborately laid out but like anything seen down a microscope was disappointingly two-dimensional.

    The work makes out to be a commentary on the British interwar social class system dependent on a vacuous collection of overpriveledged talentless snobs about to get their come-uppance. What it appeared to me to be was a polemical diatribe, written by a hostile outsider. Ironically, Julian Fellowes may be an insider who wishes he wasn’t. Apart from the agreeable Ivor Novello, the rest of the cast seemed little more than unpleasant, self-centred caricatures and it was difficult to admire or like any of them. This I found the most damming feature of Gosford Park. The suggestion that egregious snobs such as Lady Trentham or unpleasant types such as Sir William McCordle are confined to the upper class is nonsense; they are to be found in all walks of life and every sitcom. Altman’s inversion of Christie’s ‘who done it’ formula didn’t work for me either. It was too cleverly obvious to be obviously clever.

    This may sound as though I do not care for plotless, characterisations. I do. Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy is one of my favourite films of all time.

    For me, Mad Men is a fine example of ensemble acting. I deplore the behaviour of many of the protagonists, but find myself liking flawed individuals because they are both plausible and three-dimensional. That’s why I shall be making room for the new series by removing the protracted Gosford Park from my hard drive. I hope you do so too.

  • Mike Alex Rose spoke:
    7th/09/2010 to 10:39 pm

    Thank you Marilyn and her friends for your marvellous website about movies. To me it is the very best thing there is, in an approach to film reviewing and discussion. Even if I’d gotten around to the idea of your project myself, I could never have carried it out so well. Many more happy reviews any day!

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