Sunday, June 8, 2014

Gosford Park
















GOSFORD PARK             A  
Great Britain  USA  Germany  Italy  (137 mi)  2001  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman

What I’m always interested in, in films, is are there errors or mistakes?  Because if you can go to every film, at least every film I’ve made, and you say, OK, in each film there’s six really great things in it, none of those had been planned.  Every one of those things that you would take out as the high point of any film of mine came as something that was not scripted, not planned, and certainly not directed by me.  Because I think that’s where you hit that truth button…Im looking for behavior, because what I really want to see from an actor is something I’ve never seen before, so I can’t tell them what that is.                     —Robert Altman  

Arguably Altman’s last masterwork, this is a film that personifies his talent for directing large ensembles pieces, finding balance and moderation out of a multitude of seemingly randomly intersecting storylines, where this is a perfect example of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Modeled after an old-fashioned Agatha Christie murder mystery novel, the third most published author in history behind Shakespeare and The Bible, by the way, but also popular British TV shows like Upstairs, Downstairs (1971 – 75) or the mini-series Brideshead Revisited (1981), Altman has a field day working with some of the finest actors in England, starting apparently with Maggie Smith and Kelly Macdonald.  Set in a lavish country estate just 45 minutes outside of London between the two World Wars, Altman wanted the look of the grounds to resemble a 19th century English manor, where the lingering customs of a distant Jane Austin era extend into the present with the wealthy aristocracy inhabiting the grandeur and spacious opulence of the enormous upstairs rooms while the cramped servant’s quarters are below.  While Altman may have been more interested in telling the story from the servant’s point of view, with forty some-odd characters, the rhythm of the film is established beginning with the servants, where the camera only goes upstairs when accompanied by a servant in the performance of their duties, which is how the audience is lured into the meticulous precision of the customs and manners of the upstairs world, cutting back and forth between the two worlds, where there’s continual upstairs gossip about their hired help, and once the servants return back downstairs, they bring with them the gossip of the upstairs world.  The film is like peeping through windows where the viewer must piece together what clues there are by the mysteries revealed in each of the rooms, especially in a murder mystery like this where it rains throughout until the murder is committed, at which point the sun comes out and everything is light and cheerful.  From the opening scene, with servants standing in the rain waiting for the various guests to arrive in their extravagant Rolls Royce cars for a weekend shooting party, the lines of demarcation are evident, as the relationship between the upper and lower classes is one of co-dependence, where everyone knows their place as if it’s been set in stone, much like the customary preferential status given to men over women, where the hierarchy downstairs is every bit as formal and rigid as it is upstairs.     

While drawing parallels to Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939), perhaps the ideal that Altman aspired to throughout his lengthy career, this is a similar film that focuses on the idleness of the rich, portrayed in Renoir’s film as sleepwalking into the catastrophe of war, as it was originally conceived as a critique of the rising tides of fascism in Europe, yet expressed as an operatic comedy of manners that examines the privilege of European aristocracy while depicting the moral callousness of the upper class and the way they treated their servants, revealing an era of social protocol that faded away after World War II due to the rise of a burgeoning middle class and with it a more equitable society.  Both films take place at a weekend party in huge country estates with parallels right down to a murder that takes place in their midst, featuring a fondness for guns and shooting wild game while ruthlessly depicting a widening gulf between master and servant, rich and poor, becoming something of a class farce between husbands that don’t love their wives, and instead are forced to sneak down empty corridors at night into someone else’s bedroom (often slumming into the servant’s quarters) while pretending they are representatives of the cultural elite.  In both, what makes it all so astonishing is the generosity expressed towards the multitude of characters, feeling overtly humane, revealing deeply subtle and complex revelations, all set in the meticulous detail of the times, becoming an insightful examination of mannerisms, behavior, and social class, featuring disgruntled employees that never smile, though most dutifully and professionally go about their business, with some elated at the joy of serving others, while others are so proud we see them preening in front of mirrors like peacocks.  Altman uses a more precise method than Renoir, alternating back and forth between masters and servants, where the constantly moving camera moves fluidly from upstairs to downstairs and back again, becoming an instrument of keen observational skills.  As it was between Auguste Renoir and Jean Renoir, father and son, it’s a meeting between the age-old customs of the 19th century and its prolonged influence well into the 20th century, where instead of a war between the classes, it’s more of a bitingly satiric comment on the indiscretions taking place in their midst, where the servants are always more observant, as they’re paid to pay attention, while the reclusive habits of the indolent rich prevent them from noticing anything, where they’re completely reliant upon the gossip of their servants to inform them just what’s actually going on around them.  The insights gleaned from both films are obtained by the fabulously rich detail of the characters, where the camera moves effortlessly back and forth between both worlds, becoming an elegant class study of an existing culture that has all but faded from memory.

Of unique interest here are the technical advisors used on the film, three in particular, all in their 80’s at the time the film was made, where each began a career as English servants in the early to mid 1930’s, the same setting as the film, including a house butler, Richard Inch, the woman in charge of the kitchen, Ruth Mott, and the parlor maid, Violet Little.  They each knew their jobs down to the tiniest detail, where their memories served as resource material, recalling a condition of precise rules and exact order that existed only in England, where one did not disobey a single rule or custom, where it was their expertise that allowed Altman to meticulously recreate conditions exactly as they were at the time.  Using forty speaking characters, Altman used his customary preparation for a film in this case, where he was acutely aware of the characters, but not the script, which went through a series of improvisations and ad-libbing on the set, using various cameras and a large ensemble cast where no one knew when the camera was on them or when the director would chose their scene, as every character was miked, some 101 voices in all, so throughout the filming process, everyone was performing their roles simultaneously.  Each actor was responsible for doing their own research in the creation of their own characters, where many of these prominent artists hadn’t done parts this small in twenty years, where there was no formal movie structure, no master shots, or medium or close up shots, but Altman created a working environment where everyone understood their respective roles, as every character had their own separate agenda, where prejudice, snobbery, and small mindedness was the social milieu of the era, featuring flawless editing, perfectly lit scenes sumptuously shot by Andrew Dunn, with a seamless choreography between the upstairs world and down, all done very painterly, often showing the servants resting out of sight from their masters on the stairways between duties, perhaps taking a moment to smoke a cigarette, where the images, some of the most beautifully composed shots in the film, convey the truth of the situation.  Everyone seems to be hiding something, including regrets for some other kind of life they might have had, but don’t, as being a servant is often a life unrealized, where throughout the process motives become clear, as people want something they don’t have, usually money, where in this setting, a large household of guests for the weekend, everyone’s a suspect. 

The idea for the film began with multiple discussions between Altman and Bob Balaban, an actor and producer on the film, where both are credited with the original idea, evolving from the filmed versions of TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1945, 1965), movies based upon Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None, expanded by British screenwriter Julian Fellowes into a study of how the two social classes collide under one roof, where one of the guests is Balaban as Morris Weissman, an American movie producer of Charlie Chan films, where he gets the idea of a murder taking place at an old English estate during a weekend party where every invited guest becomes a suspect in a murder committed on the premises, creating a movie within a movie, where Altman’s effortless direction is a delicate collaboration between the camera and his actors, described by Altman as “planets trying to find their orbits without crashing into one another.”  Oddly enough, there were no camera hogs, no notable scene stealers, as it’s instead a brilliantly acted film, where the understated tone of authenticity and believability is key throughout.   Maggie Smith, known for her acerbic roles, who gets all the best one-liners, “There’s nothing more exhausting than breaking in a new maid,” is the first one of the invited guests seen, Constance Trentham (the aunt of the lady of the house), accompanied by her new maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), shortened to Mary as she can’t pronounce the rest.  The hosts of the party are Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), a gruff old man seen carrying his dog at all times, the only one in the film with real money, where so many others are continually seen circling around him hoping to get some of it, and his much younger and glamorous wife, the acid tongued Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas).  The guests are whisked inside while their servants, all called by their master’s names, are sent around to the servant’s entrance, where there’s a noticeable gap between rich and poor.  Alan Bates plays Jennings, the house butler, the actual man in charge, while under him Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Croft runs the kitchen, while Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson runs the household.  Of note, the two women completely avoid each other and haven’t spoke in decades, while painfully respecting each other’s exclusive domain.  Right from the outset, the viewer is privy to petty resentments and suspicions, where there is little trust on the grounds, with each protecting their own position, instead what captures everyone’s attention, both upstairs and down, are secret exchanges of gossip, where these mutterings reveal the backdrop and advance the storylines. 

Mary, as an inquisitive young novice, acts as the audience’s eyes and ears, providing the details of the narrative as she leads us through the myriad of complications in both worlds, where she’s an inexperienced young Scottish girl new to her profession who is nervous and shy and a bit overwhelmed by the complex set of rules and guidelines expected from her, where she’s placed in the same room as Elsie (Emily Watson), one of the head housemaids who quickly fills her in on how things are run in this household.  Buried beneath the veneer of professionalism in their duties, where the downstairs world is always seen as a flurry of constant activity, various subplots gradually emerge from the snippets of gossip, filled with mysterious clues and sexual innuendo.  Tension is everywhere as the camera is never still, even if barely noticeable, creating an underlying restlessness on the premises as we visit immaculately dressed guests that seem to be sleepwalking upstairs, a picture of lethargy as they’re seen chatting in the red drawing room, a picture of stately elegance, while in the more claustrophobic downstairs corridors servants are hard at work making preparations in the kitchen, working fastidiously in the sewing and ironing room, or polishing shoes in the boot and brushing room.  The upstairs scenes are actually shot inside the English estate while the downstairs scenes are all shot in a carefully designed movie set, where the use of windows allows the entry of light into otherwise darkened interior rooms.  With Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson, often seen barking out explicit orders, Altman uses a Hitchcock device from Rebecca (1940) where the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danver (Judith Anderson) abruptly appears, seemingly out of nowhere, where she’s not just living in the house, but haunting it.  One of the interesting aspects of the film is how narrative histories are slowly revealed, where the audience comes to know everyone, but only in due time, as the film has a rhythm and pace of its own, where there’s an intimate familiarity in the conversations between the masters and their own servants, who often play the observational role, as they are always on hand in the event they’re needed, often eavesdropping into each other’s affairs.   Altman creates plenty of family scandals, the subject of much of the gossip, where lives are threatened by the stinginess of McCordle, who is easily the crudest and least caring person in the entire film, giving people plenty of reasons to do him harm, as everyone universally hates him.

Some of the family struggle to keep up appearances even as their financial interests are failing, where McCordle’s overly pampered daughter Isobel, Camilla Rutherford, still living at home, wants to marry a man beneath her stature, Rupert (Laurence Fox), but is upset her father refuses to advance him any money.  Sir William has threatened to cut off the lifelong allowance to Constance, seemingly because he can, but nothing matches his ability to make a man squirm, as he does with his son-on-law Lt. Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander), married to Lady Sylvia’s sister Lavinia (Natasha Wightman), perhaps the only couple that actually love each other, where McCordle relishes the idea of sadistically backing out of an important business deal at the last minute (selling boots to barefoot Nigerians), leaving Meredith to flounder and ultimately fail on his own.  Perhaps most cynical is Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) who purposefully married into family wealth with the ordinary looking “plain Jane,” Mabel (Claudie Blakley), not exactly a looker, only to be supremely disappointed when he finds out she didn’t have that much money after all, becoming the object of his neverending verbal abuse.  She literally shines in the film, however, becoming the center of attention when the handsome pianist asks her to sit with him.  Altman cleverly introduces a thread of reality, where Jeremy Northam plays Ivor Novello, known for his portrayal in Hitchcock’s silent film The Lodger (1927), who attempted a remake of the same film as a talkie, but it failed miserably, the subject of discussion among the wealthy class who would never be caught dead seeing a motion picture, viewing the entertainment business with scorn, considering it beneath their noble heritage.  In some of the most intriguing stretches of the film, Novello, who was not just a matinee idol but also a songwriter, is called upon to provide entertainment, where he sits at the piano (with Mabel) and sings about a half dozen songs of his own compositions, offering delightfully witty commentary on such a unique social setting, where even his music is mocked for actually having clever lyrics with some profound level of depth instead of the lighthearted background entertainment they expected, where for their tastes he goes on too long, eventually becoming an interesting lead-in to the murder.  The servants, on the other hand, are seen standing in the dark corridors of the adjoining rooms listening in, illuminated by just the barest trace of light, star struck and literally in awe of Novello, giddily catching a glimpse of a celebrity they could only read about in the papers, occasionally breaking out into dance.  Northam is simply exquisite in the role, which has a gay subtext, where especially beautiful is the song “The Land of Might-Have-Been,” Gosford Park 24. The Land of Might-Have-Been - YouTube (4:21), the lament of gay existence, as Novello was a closeted gay, where many of the male servants are seen bickering over their desire to dress and serve him.  Bob Balaban’s Morris Weissman is an out-of-place American, whose rude manners trying to close his Hollywood movie deal over a long distance telephone call echoes throughout the rooms, reminiscent of the omnipresent cellphone interruptions of today, but he interestingly brings along his own valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Philippe with a Scottish accent, viewed as overly cocky by the other servants), where it’s hinted he is Weissman’s gay lover, something that was presumably not outwardly permitted, despite all the moral indiscretions taking place behind closed doors.       

After seeing Clive Owen in CROUPIER (1998), Altman knew he wanted to work with him, playing Robert Parks, a man with few words, who keeps to himself, seemingly with his own agenda, where he’s the servant to Lady Sylvia’s brother, the taciturn and sour looking Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and his wife Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), sharing a room with Henry Denton, who is always on the prowl, seen indiscreetly entering the room of Lady Sylvia on occasion.  Parks turns into Mary’s best friend, perhaps due to his smooth, James Bond-like good looks, his overt intelligence, and level of discreetness.  The scene of the film, however, is not the murder scene, which has all the appropriate build-up, complete with clues leading up to the murder, but takes place at the dinner party where Lady Sylvia takes offense at her husband’s behavior in dismissing others, suggesting he’s not interested in a living soul other than himself, where her display of viciousness in front of guests is stunning, going too far for Elsie, the head maid, who cuts her off, speaking up to defend McCordle, but stops herself in mid sentence, offering a petrified look, as all eyes are suddenly upon her in a state of utter shock, as a servant’s indiscretion of this magnitude is grounds for instant termination, a devastating moment where she’s seen running away in shame, knowing the implications, where it also reveals Elsie had been sleeping with the man of the house, which is a revelation to the audience, while confirming Lady Sylvia’s suspicions.  The aftermath of the murder opens up some of the darkest and longest kept secrets, where the inept investigator Thompson (William Fry) ignores every clue unearthed by his conscientious underling, Constable Dexter (Ron Webster), who keeps digging up a string of damaging evidence.  Much like a Charlie Chan movie, the police inspector never solves anything, as it’s always Charlie Chan that uncovers the mysteries, so it is with Mary who sniffs out what actually matters, becoming the real sleuth on the case, with Altman providing an open window into matters of status and class, where the film continues to provide revelations to the audience that remain concealed to the other characters in the film who for the most part remain clueless, where the murder changes nothing, barely causing a ripple in their lives, as people aren’t going to break their habits and routines, “Why do we spend our lives living through them?” where life goes on as normal, showing an unshakeable faith in the rules of the game.  The film is a mystery in name only, as it’s really an examination of a class system teetering on the edge of extinction, as the British Empire is about to unravel, and with it Britain’s loss as a world power.  Perhaps because of this, characters cling to their roles, with the lords of the manor expressing a feeble inability to care for themselves, while the servants are equally stuck in what’s left of this pitiful pecking order.      

According to Altman:

This time, 1932, is toward the end of this kind of servitude.  These people went into service, stayed all their lives, and it was hard work.  Their families were often thrilled to be rid of them.  It meant there were only three in a bed, not four.  If their daughter became a maid, they knew she would be taken care of and fed.  People in service often worked in only one or two households most of their lives.  But World War II was a turning point.  After it, young girls were able to have jobs other than maids.

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