From the opening frames, there’s no doubt that Gosford Park is the work of Robert Altman. The camera, unchained, prowls through the trees. You’d be forgiven for thinking Vilmos was behind the lens. Despite this stylistic familiarity, the immediate response is also one of estrangement. The grounds and big house of the estate bathed in wet early morning light unmistakably evoke the imaginative contours of the English countryside. The move away from an American milieu allows Altman to distance himself from his familiar derisive affectations, in the process delivering his best film by far since the 1970s.
Moreover, he does so with a cast so deep that the credits mock us. From the withering gaze of Richard E. Grant to all the evidence you need that Stephen Fry is wasted hosting panel shows, the assorted players do wonderful work through Altman’s long lenses and layered soundtracks. Much of the success of the film is how verbal gags – such as the presentation of a venture to provide boots for Sudanese soldiers – play out in the periphery of much larger, roving tableaux. These tableaux are themselves more often than not humorous. Exemplary is the image of foppish upper-class men impotently waving rifles in the hunting scene. These external objects of supposed internal power generate a laugh, not least of all when one is mildly shot.
Tonally, much of Gosford Park plays like the kind of late-career comedy-drama Woody Allen isn’t clever enough to make. Julian Fellowes shares the credit here for providing Altman with something Allen never considered; that is, a screenwriter native to the vernacular. Allen’s European films are undoubtedly the work of a writer straining outward from an apartment on Central Park. Fellowes does stellar work populating the estate with discernible, fleshed-out characters. The primary joy of the film is sitting with a cast of excellent performers playing out an expertly crafted scenario. The seeds of the narrative turn towards mystery are planted early, but neither Altman nor Fellowes are in a hurry to reach the inciting action. That it comes across as an afterthought is entirely correct, both narratively and in keeping with the concerns of the characters on screen.
Most of the runtime is given to the petty intrigues that animate the idle class, boorish and lumpen, that sits “above stairs,” in the parlance of the film. That these characters are distinguishable is, again, a credit to the script and the performers. Altman and company throw a lot at the spectator, building on the intimate details that occasionally break into the flow of the film. All want something that only Sir William McCordle, the patriarch played by Michael Gambon, can offer. And as the camera occasionally lingers over bottles labelled “Poison,” our minds will drift into any number of parlour mysteries. This may not be an Agatha Christie adaptation, though she is one of many influences looming large over the film.
Gosford Park isn’t shy about letting cinema history creep into the frame. One of the guests above stairs is Ivor Novello, whose recent turn in The Lodger is referenced in passing. He sits on the receiving end of many jokes, not least of all for working for a living. Another guest, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, who also co-produced the film), is a Hollywood producer undertaking research for Charlie Chan in London. In case we aren’t in the right mind, Stephen Fry arrives dressed like Monsieur Hulot. Despite these cinephilic allusions, the iconography breaking into the reality of the film adds little to the success of the film. What it does is gradually lower the stakes. There’s an unmistakable feeling of warmth in what Altman accomplishes. Gosford Park is, simply, a delight to take in. Given this, Altman cannot match the grandest – and perhaps most obvious – influence on this late masterpiece: Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.
Taken structurally, Altman’s film functionally transposes Renoir’s onto England in 1932. There’s a country estate, a hunting scene, and a focus on class relations. Given the intrusion of cinematic history into the events of the film, the clear influence of Renoir’s work becomes almost a distraction. Standing too near one of the great works of cinema is folly. However, in the case of Gosford Park, it illustrates how a film with compatible aims can fall short of its ambition.
Throughout the film, we can read what Altman and Fellowes are presenting. This is most readily apparent when we’re “below stairs” with the servants catering to the smooth functioning of the house. Here, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald) act as an audience surrogate. She is the newly promoted lady’s maid to the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith). Her lack of experience allows the film to place Elsie (Emily Watson) in a position to explain the forms and functions of service to a contemporary cinema audience. Through her mistakes, Mary brings herself and the viewer closer to the world of the serving class.
Despite the thoroughgoing understanding of social hierarchy on display, the film lacks bite. There are brilliant touches. Decorum dictates Trentham should address her maid by her surname. Not being able to pronounce Maceachran, she settles for Mary. Arriving in the rain, the party guests are chauffeured into the house under cover of umbrella. Mary is bid to follow the car around back to unload the bags. We see much of the house and can compare the living spaces and private moments of both classes.
What is inescapable is the distance in time between the setting and the production of the film. Where Renoir produced a contemporaneous critique of the world he knew, Altman and Fellowes create a period drama insulated from contemporary concerns. The Rules of the Game situates itself within a world on the brink of conflagration and the moral complacency facilitating its fall. Gosford Park, which likewise targets an over-indulged ruling class, does so from the safety of an illusorily diminished imperial social organisation. That we can imagine this running for six series on ITV suggests the dullness of the critique.
The film lacks the historical imagination that marks Altman’s best work. Here he is working in an idiom towards which he can only look in on as an outsider. However, this outsider perspective is no less absent from his great films. The film is most successful when it charts the indirect relationship between the servants and the served. There is an empathy and patience here lacking in much of Altman’s work, which tends towards the “smart-alecky,” to borrow a term from Jonathan Rosenbaum. The class “below stairs” talk about the things the class “above stairs” pretend not to play out. No small intrigue goes unnoticed and undiscussed, generating an economy of gossip more profitable than any liquid asset.
Fellowes and Altman, through seemingly inconsequential dialogues, extend the film beyond its runtime, hinting at the world and petty concerns of which Gosford Park and environs is but one part. They achieve narrative, though not critical, success. Regardless of the eventually introduced whodunnit, the long-form structure and inter-relatedness of action above and below is the ultimate success of Altman’s last great film. Though it falls short as satire, its class politics being too insulated from its object, it is nonetheless an expertly crafted late feature by the maverick filmmaker.
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