Director: Robert Altman
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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