Friday, June 10, 2011

Gosford Park

On the surface, Gosford Park (2001) appears to belong to the genre of the classic British whodunit — a selected assortment of guests gathered together for a hunting party at an English country house; the pompous Lord (Michael Gambon) who gets grumpier as time passes by, shoots his mouth off more often than is good for him, and is therefore conveniently murdered; and a desperate air lingering over the guests which is sometimes as palpable as in an Agatha Chrsitie thriller. But this is where the similarities end, so to speak. For there are no Belgian detectives with cute moustaches exercising their little grey cells, a Watson or a Hastings in tow. Also conspicuous by its absence is the lengthy exposition of deductive skills at the end by an old biddy fashioned after Miss Marple. What you find in their stead is a healthy commentary on the stratification of the English society during the years between the great wars. That, and a lot of style. But do not take my word for it; my bias taints my opinion admirably.

Directed by Robert Altman, one of the few American directors that I intend on exploring after I am done getting stumped by the Coen Brothers, Gosford Park happens to be one of those well-made movies (well-made, mind you, not exceptional — there is a review on Cold Bacon that shreds it to pieces) which often starve and die in the shadow of their more illustrious counterparts (namely M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, Nashville and the like). That is reason enough for them to deserve a portion of my time and a fraction of your attention. The film tells the story of a shooting party hosted by Sir William McCordle at his country residence - Gosford Park - sometime in 1932. The invitees consist of a wide range of characters — from Lady William McCordle’s two sisters and their husbands to the Hollywood star Ivor Novello and a gay Hollywood film producer who is accompanied by his ‘valet’. But that is not all. Downstairs, we find an entire army of servants at their beck and call where we meet the mechanical housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (on one particular occasion she remarks, “I am the perfect servant. I have no life.”) and the quintessential English butler Mr. Jeeves Jennings, amongst a host of other valets, maids, cooks, servers, and grooms.

Between all the pretentious hunting, the elaborate breakfasts, the even more lavish dinners, and the vicious gossip mongering (why do servants obsesses about their employers' personal lives?), Sir William gets stabbed through the heart as he sits sulking in his study after his affair with the head housemaid, Elsie, is rather indelicately revealed over dinner one night. Although everyone is amply surprised, hardly anyone seems upset by this unpleasant incident. Indeed, all of them are just eager to get back their lives as soon as ‘this horrible business’ is resolved. (In hindsight, I have come to gather that sexual mores look good on the coffee table but rather out of place and prudish when all you want to do is have sex make love.) A comic inspector, played by Stephen Fry and not surprisingly named Thompson, elicits some laughs as he blunders and goofs all around the crime scene. But he is no Sherlock Holmes and we begin to get that uneasy feeling that accompanies the realization that there is more to things than meets the eye – the investigation isn’t the point.

Intended for most parts to be a study of the British class system during the 1930s, Gosford Park highlights the dependency of the upper class on an efficient servant class. Not surprisingly, Lady Lavinia shares the opinion that women who travel without a maid have lost their sense of self respect. Indeed, maids are required even for the purpose of getting dressed for dinner. Talk about sophistication! In the servants’ area, people are addressed by the names of their masters — “We stick to the old customs here, it saves confusion”, explains Mrs. Wilson. An observation that particularly came to my attention was the contempt that most guests bear for Mabel Nesbitt, Hon. Freddie Nesbitt’s wife, just because she comes from a working class family and has climbed her way up the social ladder. Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lady Trentham (Maggie Smith) - who finds nothing more exhausting than training a new maid - are especially vicious and leave no stone unturned in reminding her of her true standing in the gathering. As anywhere else in the world, the elite always seem to have a weakness for the existing order.

The movie conducts quite a remarkable study of contradictions. Although Lady Trentham is threatened with financial ruin as her brother, Sir William, plans to withdraw her allowance, she is interested in what the maids have to say about her state of affairs. The Hollywood actor, Novello, is past his prime and has to sing at supper in order to ‘entertain’ the unappreciative guests. On the other hand, in the servants’ quarters, Mr. Jennings is amply proud to be the head of the staff at Gosford Park and conducts dinner proceedings in a fashion similar to his master – for instance, people are seated around the dinner table according to the ranks of their employers. This hierarchy extends to other sections of the society as well. So while the inspector struts around puffing his pipe and making a big show of his foolhardiness, his constable diligently searches for clues and points them out to him, only to be ignored. There is a particularly endearing scene in the movie where Novello croons while playing the piano and the servants, all apparently great fans of his, steal a dance or two, behind closed doors, when they are not being ordered about by their bored patrons.

The weather, always grey, damp, and dark, seems to provide the perfect atmosphere for the feeling of general unrest that underlies the perfunctory smiles and the superficial discussions of the guests. Which is all very good since a film critic described surface appearances, rather than complex interpersonal relationships, as the theme of the movie. The film looks good and, I am told, very genuine. Even though Gosford Park is not Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1975), the sets and the cinematography convey the mood of the plot quite handsomely. When the murder disrupts the natural order of things, exposing the connections, some of them dark and ugly, between the classes, I realized (and so will you, perhaps) how a good score can help one in appreciating the finer points of a movie. Altman also seems to have a keen eye for snobbery and no one conveys it more flawlessly than Lady Trentham. Her sharp, caustic remarks sting where it hurts the most — when she is introduced to Novello, she mentions his latest movie and observes sarcastically, “It must be rather disappointing when something just, you know, flops like that”.

An ensemble cast with big names often bears an inverse ratio to the collective thrill they actually deliver. Each person just ends up distracting us from the other one. However, as Roger Ebert writes, by suitably choosing his actors, Altman gives us “a party with no boring guests”. That being said, more than once it would seem that the remarkable star cast has been spread out too thin – the downside of having so many threads is that there is no definite closure to most of them. The drama itself is not as intense as a Hitchcockian thriller for it does not seek to build up to an exposé. It proceeds with a relaxed rhythm and seeks to engage you rather than jolting you out of your seats. Having led your expectations astray, the climax leaves you feeling a little perplexed, maybe dissatisfied as well, if not cheated. Quite understandably, once the expected destination has been transformed by the experience of the journey itself, you might be even tempted to watch the movie again. Or not. Who am I to decide?
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