I am not even going to pretend that I know or understand everything that happened in Gosford Park. Perhaps that’s what the filmmakers intended. The late great Robert Altman once said that he found it insulting when people said they only saw his films one time. I would be doing a dishonor to his memory to say that I have truly “seen” Park after just one viewing.
I would not be dishonoring his memory to say that I still see why this is considered one of Altman’s best films. I personally disagree with that assessment (nothing can ever replace the worlds that Nashville and Short Cuts create) but the film is still smart and classy enough to entrance anyone who wishes to watch it.
The film is, essentially, an homage to Jean Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game.
In Park, a group of wealthy English elites go to the country home of William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Sylvia McCordle (Kristen Scott Thomas). All of them are talking about financial difficulty and reveal deep personal crises to each other. The servants at the home, including the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and the head housemaid Elise (Emily Watson) also seem to be using the opportunity to meet the servants of the rich, including Mary (Kelly MacDonald) who is the lady’s maid of the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) and the mysterious valet (Clive Owen) of Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance).
Got all that?
William is murdered after he accidentally reveals he is having an affair with Elise. An Inspector (Stephen Fry) is called in to investigate; he reveals William’s multiple affairs with the working girls at the factories he has owned and that the unions produced offspring, some of whom may be present at the manor.
Does the plot sound like it belongs in a bad soap opera? It doesn’t feel that way. The constant plot twists and new characters some how all feel like they belong in this intricate world. What’s amusing is that the low watts barely take notice of the murder and do not act with surprise of any of the revelations about William’s illicit activities. It is all a part of the bourgeoisie’s nonchalance to anyone’s problems but their own. Most would call Park a murder mystery, but the murder is barely solved by the film’s end; indeed, the inspector is barely acknowledged by the house guests. Park’s seemingly mundane set up is meant to emphasize how quickly the aristocracy was dying after the “Great War.”
I mentioned The Rules of the Game at the beginning of the plot recap, and I meant it. Several of the scenes (including a pheasant hunt, a fickle young woman, class conflict, and a murder) are lifted from that pre-WWII French classic. A lot of the themes of a dying aristocracy are as well. But what was revolutionary in 1939 was merely reflective in the year of its release. Yet today the film still manages to be poignant. Today’s wealthy have often been accused as being aloof, like the characters in the film. Many of the Occupy people make the same complaints as the servants in the film. Indeed, the reveal of the murderer (minor spoilers) does not seem that surprising, and actually feels like a natural action of the servants at the manor. The Rules of the Game talked about a different set of people, but I wonder how many people would understand why people rioted in the theater after its premiere. Gosford Park may help make people today understand.
Still, Gosford Park would feel like a failure if this point were constantly forced onto the audiences. But it’s not; as I said, everyone in the film feels like a real person of their times. The only downfall is that, with the exception of Stephen Fry’s Inspector (who is always interrupted before he can say his surname), none of them stand out as well as other Altman characters. Everyone remembers the scenes in Short Cuts of Stormy Weathers destroying his ex-wife’s living room, or the scene in Nashville of Sueleen taking her clothes off after realizing she is a really terrible singer. Gosford Park is, sadly, missing those moments. But the characters still feel like they have pasts, and their actions are not dictated by the necessity of the work’s themes. I quite liked Kelly MacDonald’s performance and her naive character. And Bob Balaban’s American film producer (who is obsessed with getting a new Charlie Chan film green lit) does provide some wonderful comic moments. A few more isolated character moments would have ensured that Gosford Park is as great as Nashville. But all the elements are present.
The strength in Altman’s films are in the world’s he managed to create. Gosford Park is one of his most poignant. The people who live in Park are hysterical for the way they seemingly drift through the world without care even in the face of absolute disaster. The themes are still resonate in these uncertain times, but the film’s strength is on Altman’s characters, even if they are not given individual moments to shine. Anyone who is a fan of Downton Abbey needs to see this film.