As he was one of the keenest observers of America and its inhabitants, Robert Altman didn’t make many movies that were set outside of the confines of the United States. But, sweeping through the best of Altman’s work like a raging sea, the theme of change renders any kind of geographic specificity in his work moot. While thoroughly English in manner, setting, cast, and spirit, Altman’s Gosford Park is an evisceration of antiquated British class systems wrapped in an Agatha Christie skin. Set during an overcast weekend in November, 1932, Gosford Park follows the exploits of several friends and family members of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) as they gather for a shooting party at his palatial mansion in the English countryside. At some point during the weekend, Sir William turns up murdered but only after everybody assembled has aired at least one grievance with him, turning themselves into an instant suspect.
In making Gosford Park more of a relaxed affair than a plot-heavy murder mystery, Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellows (working from an idea from Altman and producer/co-star, Bob Balaban) cares less about the mystery itself than it does revealing that, despite their mannered appearance, he upper echelon of society has lives just as messy as those in the middle class tableaux films like A Wedding or Short Cuts. The only difference being that, in those aforementioned films, the people are fucking their own lives without the assistance of paid help. Much like Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park is keen to marvel at the embroidered front piece while finding equally fascinating the backside of the cloth; itself a mess of tangled threads zig-zagging every which way. In this, the appearances of the upstairs are maintained by the people working downstairs who know every secret of their employers and, being human beings, make no qualms in exchanging notes with one another.
In terms of humanistic concerns, the film is saying something about the cost of life and dignity that powers the swells’ collective engine. For all of the polished smoothness and carefully measured dinner placements, the downstairs is a crush of people working with the precision of a Swiss watch that keeps everyone above them fed, on schedule, and clothed in freshly pressed dress attire. Not that it makes any difference to outsiders, mind you. Or, as Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) says during the investigation of Sir William, “We’re not interested in servants; just those with a real connection to the dead man.”
Gosford Park also has quite a lot to say about how men can do whatever the fuck they please but women are really squeezed by conformity. Sir William has built a road of fortune while committing the most flagrant violations with women of any class but any one of the women in his life has to employ a great deal of subterfuge just to have a quick one on the side, most especially the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas, playing Lady Sylvia, Sir William’s long-suffering wife. Also of high concern is how the kind of worthless ranking system in the British upper class can create collateral damage downstairs as the servants’ fortunes and titles are connected at the hip with their employers, people who utilize the help in finding out everyone else’s secrets while insisting on discretion regarding their own. “Why we must always live through them?” wonders Emily Watson’s downstairs maid that knows where all the proverbial bodies are buried. Gosford Park is also not shy in laying out the hard truth that for all the bitching people do about the nepotism that occurs in the plush jobs that are the most coveted, nobody in polite society really seems much to give a shit about the subject when stretches to those working in total servitude.
It’s easy to see why this film was Altman’s most commercially successful film since M*A*S*H. Coming off of the heels of 9/11, nobody was really much in the mood to be terribly critical of America so why not take the piss out of the British ruling class, something that only seemed less American than it really was. True, Gosford Park is, along with Vincent & Theo, probably Altman’s least “American” film but Bob Balaban’s American movie producer, Morris Wiseman, and Ryan Phillipe’s method-actor-cum butler (with an ersatz Scottish brogue) are genteel targets of incurious, dim-bulb yanks, Balaban’s hilarious out-of-touch Hollywood producer completely astounded by the British people’s ability to sound like they come from England.
Altman also uses the stage to revisit the ghosts of characters of films past. Michael Gambon’s way of snatching a cheap feel of a woman’s chest is 100% the same gag employed by Howard Duff’s drunken doctor in A Wedding. Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), cousin to Sir William, is treated with equal starry adulation and bitchy scorn as Elliott Gould was when he inexplicably stumbled onto Haven Hamilton’s compound in Nashville. And like Cookie’s Fortune and A Wedding, long-held secrets bubble to the service upon the death of a powerful central figure in a sprawling family. All the while, the plot of Morris Wiseman’s latest film, Charlie Chan in London, is keenly similar to the weekend’s turn of events as Altman underlines the looking-glass elements of not only the movies, but also his own work. Maggie Smith’s droll Aunt Constance relishes her lines as she swipes at the Novello-fronted The Lodger which feels as reflective of Altman’s own feelings about Hitchcock as it does her downward glance on cinema as an art form.
The world of Gosford Park is the stiff beginning of a societal philosophy that would completely melt with the spring weather in Cookie’s Fortune, another look at societal mores highlighting their ugliness while unraveling around a crime scene. In terms of Altman’s hugely populated, multi-charactered films, Gosford Park is his nimblest and most dexterous, undermining Brian De Palma’s assertion that filmmakers best work is done before their 60’s. At 75, Altman was still able to bring the lumber and swing it hard and like the best of Robert Altman’s work, it’s doubtful that all of Gosford Park’s deep riches will be completely mined.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain