Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Julian Fellowes
Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn
by Jon Cvack
I saw this film a few years after it came out as my cinephilia was just revving up. I had seen Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game in a French Cinema course back in college, knowing that it inspired this piece. I had loved the movie, but was far too green to comprehend both how beautifully and intricately shot the film is. Each frame looks like a painting, with a perfect combination of light and blocking, in which even the most mundane moments are exceptionally cinematic.
Like Altman’s other ensemble pieces, he assembled an all star cast, including Maggie Smith playing the accessible and humorous Constance Trentman; Clive Owen as a once orphaned and newly recruited servant Robert Parks; Michael Gambon as the estate’s owner and philanderer William McCordle; Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Sylvia, whose promiscuities are abundant and whose look is a perfectly suited for the 1930s era; Emily Watson as servant girl Elsie, whose exudes sexual confidence and independence; Helen Mirren as one of the servant heads Mrs. Wilson, who shows us at her most raw and vulnerable; John Atterbury as the film’s most hilarious character, playing Hollywood producer Merriman; and even Ryan Philippe as Henry Danton, who feigns servility in order to research an upcoming movie role. Honestly, go just check out Wikipedia cast page and you’ll be blown away. It’s one thing to have maybe two or three of these talents in a single film; Gosford Park has one of the most impressive ensembles in all of cinema history.
The story is fairly simple. It takes place entirely within an English mansion in Gosford Park during a hunting party, exploring both British Aristocracy and the servants beneath them. I kept recalling a book I read in college for a few classes “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Society” by Irving Goffman, which took Sartre’s ideas of bad faith and expanded upon them sociologically. At its simplest, it explores how we’re all actors in our everyday lives, with Sartre’s famous example involving a waiter who pretends to have a highly accommodating and servile attitude in order to win the favor of the restaurant's patrons, either for his own personal financial benefit, or because he has such pride in the work, wishing for the patrons to have the best experience possible. Goffman believed that most jobs require this degree of acting, as the individual can’t properly function without it. A stockbroker will take on the image of a stockbroker; a teacher will act as the strict disciplinarian; an artist might take on the pretentious role of a tortured soul.
Gosford Park provides us a glimpse into the inner workings of servant society. Lovers of "Downtown Abbey" would love this film, and I’d bet that the creators looked straight to it for inspiration. While serving their boss and his guests, the servants treat the job with the utmost care and attention, anxious to attend to every detail, to the point of anticipating what is needed before being requested. Yet downstairs, the gossip is abundant, varying from crude jokes and insights, into the sexual escapades between the help, with Elsie entering into relations with Elsie (in a scene that reminded me of a similar relation seen in Fanny and Alexander). What we discover is that the servants don’t necessarily hate their jobs as much one might expect, any more than the aristocrats enjoy their privileged lives as we much as we’d expect. In a great scene after the first night’s dinner ends, Henry Danton, tricking himself into being one of the servants, joins them at dinner and asks if they ever thought of doing anything else. Some are offended, remaining silent, with Robert Parks saying he could have done anything he wanted, having chosen to be a servant.
Amongst the upper classes, we see that life is equally unsatisfying. There are bad business deals, unsuccessful careers, unpaid debts, secrets and lies. While everyone tries to maintain an image that they are fine and collected, we learn that everyone is simply putting on act of varying degrees - pretending a happy marriage, fidelity, success, confidence. When the murder finally occurs deep into Act II, the situation never really amounts to as much as you would like. It almost serves as a distraction, making us desire a return to its simple observatory approach the first half and change provided. When we learn the situation between Mrs. Wilson and Robert Parks, it was an interesting development, but felt unnecessary, as though tacked on for fear that the loose, floating narrative wouldn’t have been strong enough. Shifting from character to character with such fluidity and grace and then immediately diving into the immense depth of motherhood and murder was interesting, and Helen Mirren’s performance during her closing scene was flooring, but something felt off about it. Still, the movie is so beautiful, and the performances so strong that all is forgiven. It makes you miss Mr. Altman, and that increasingly classic method of intricate camerawork to tell an complex and rich story.
BELOW: Absolutely nothing on YouTube, so here's Altman winning Best Director at the Golden Globes
Thoughts on films, old and new
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