“I’m the perfect servant: I have no life”
Watching Gosford Park again conjured thoughts about it being quintessential Robert Altman, thoughts I couldn’t conjure in 2001 considering it was my first true experience watching one of his films. It proves the perfect evolutionary end to a way of filmmaking he began over twenty years previous with A Wedding‘s sprawling cast, overlapping dialogue, and class strife. Its Agatha Christie-type whodunit conceit lends itself perfectly to his sensibilities and aesthetic, but we can thank Bob Balaban for enthusiastically asking to collaborate for Altman to get the ball rolling. They tapped 50-year old Julian Fellowes to expand their outline into his feature screenwriting debut—ultimately winning Best Screenplay at the Oscars before transposing its upstairs/downstairs dynamic into a successful run with “Downton Abbey”—and this underrated masterpiece was born.
Jean Renoir‘s The Rules of the Game is an obvious inspiration via social commentary, but so too is Charlie Chan in London for structure. Altman and Fellowes actually work the latter into the script with Balaban’s character Morris Weissman, a Hollywood producer visiting William McCordle’s (Michael Gambon) English hunting weekend to research that very film. This detail plays both as a way to introduce Jeremy Northam‘s rendition of real life composer/actor Ivor Novello and their suspicious valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe) as well as provide added tongue-in-cheek humor with constant phone calls to California loudly exclaiming how they’ve been writing British servants all wrong. This loud, brash American is studying those around him almost as much as we are. He looks to exploit while we seek to understand.
The characters they conceived couldn’t have been fleshed out with better a mix of professionals and amateurs: aged aristocracy set in their ways alongside younger opportunists and green newcomers learning the etiquette, discretion, and loyalty necessary to survive them. Our entry point inside therefore becomes young Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald) arriving at Gosford Park to work her very first house party. She’s looking after Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), an old curmudgeon who revels in stirring the pot to leisurely enjoy the ensuing fallout. Hardly the easiest boss to bear, Trentham is perhaps the most authentic with which to cut one’s teeth. She constantly prods Mary for gossip, dishes her own, and lets her roam to discover what else is going on around the property so we can too.
Amongst the upstairs periphery is a rogue’s gallery of leaches hoping to bend William’s ear for handouts. Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) has ideas of blackmail, Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander) hopes for confirmation on a Sudan-based business opportunity, and Trentham jockeys to secure the allowance he has been paying her for decades. William’s wife Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) puts on a smile to be the happy hostess despite knowing his penchant for sleeping with the maids and that sister Louisa Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville) wished she’d married him instead. Mabel Nesbitt (Claudie Blakley) steels herself to combat the catty crowd with no help from her husband, William and Sylvia’s daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) is drowning in adulterers, and Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance) simply wants to kill some pheasant.
Downstairs is no less complicated or vast with leadership positions filled by a drunk (Alan Bates‘ head butler Jennings), a forever-worried head valet in Derek Jacobi‘s Probert, and a lead housekeeper (Helen Mirren‘s Mrs. Wilson) and cook (Eileen Atkins‘ Mrs. Croft) who can barely stand each other long enough to make accidental eye contact. Prized maid Elsie (Emily Watson) moves about while taking Mary under her wing, devoted maid Dorothy (Sophie Thompson) is constantly saddled with extra responsibility, and footman George (Richard E. Grant) is devoid of shame while Denton’s visitor shows a penchant for making enemies just as Mr. Stockbridge’s valet Robert Parks (Clive Owen) endears himself to a regular procession of visitors making conversation despite wanting to more or less mind his own business.
It’s enough of a biting glimpse behind the curtain of entitlement and resentment to simply carry on with its carefully manufactured ebbs and flows considering the self-made drama provides ample fodder for snickering and haughty airs of superiority. But as I stated above, this is a whodunit wherein all the suspects of William’s untimely demise are trapped under the same roof. Multiple characters are very clearly shown leaving the main study before the murder and returning shortly thereafter to throw us off any one scent. A bumbling Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) arrives with his underappreciated yet obviously smarter Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) and the whole lot is interviewed for our own intelligence’s sake rather than his. William’s death will actually help many onscreen and none lament his passing.
The film’s two halves (before murder and after) couldn’t be more different in mood despite proving identical in execution thanks to everyone staying true to his/her character. There’s a sense of frivolity at the beginning as the wealthy pretend to be conniving while the servants successfully are. Clues about the crime are sprinkled throughout with a missing knife and multiple close-ups of poison bottles littering each room, but the point is less about William’s death as the reactions to it. Very few players have redeemable qualities save Mary and Mrs. Wilson (Mirren steals the show), but this only increases our entertainment because no one even pretends to care. This world is about getting ahead and one less person at the top means one less person to step over.
But there are also numerous subplots that infer upon the most intriguing of guests including Denton, Mrs. Nesbitt, and Parks. They infuse comic relief in a lack of subtlety, commendable courage in trying times, and a mysterious air of calm respectively. William’s employees have their secrets too with the friction between Wilson and Croft scratching at the back of our minds while the cavalier attitudes of George and Elsa contrast the devotion (with a hint of impatience) from Jennings. There’s a realistic sense of impetuousness from the upstairs group often acting on whims without a thought for anyone but themselves or anything but their own joy while the downstairs is allowed the emotional depth to survive with an even-keeled air despite their shattering internal sense of grief.
Altman and Fellowes aren’t trying to intentionally hide the truth either as a second viewing shows the clues to who is responsible and why are never shrouded by anything but our ignorance to the whole story. It’s easy to miss nuance in performances the first time because you believe it’s born from status and tradition instead of personal connection. So much action advances the pitch-perfect recreation of 1932 English life and yet it’s all a ruse to mask the more intimate strains of relationship drama beneath. This is where Gosford Park truly excels: the human hardship and sacrifice for love that’s existed forever. For its characters the film is twenty-plus years in the making and in just over two hours it feels as though we’ve experienced them all.