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Altman does UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS & Dame Agatha - or does he?
on February 23, 2004
Well, strictly speaking he doesn't of course - Robert Altman never simply tags onto an established genre; he plays with it and makes it his own by turning it upside down. So, while the idea for "Gosford Park" may have been inspired by murder mysteries "Christie style" and by the likes of "Brideshead Revisited" and the BBC series about the Bellamy's Eaton Square household, we leave familiar territory the moment we enter the estate ... through the servants' entrance; for although large parts of the action take place "upstairs," it is manifestly told from a "downstairs" perspective.
Academy Award-winningly scripted by Julian Fellowes (himself a descendant of British nobility and therefore able to draw on manifold personal insights in creating the movie's characters), "Gosford Park" is primarily an examination of the unquestioningly accepted rules of the early 1930s' British class society: where, beset by primogeniture and a lifestyle often beyond their means, an aristocrat's daughters and younger sons were compelled to marry rich to maintain their expected standard of living - making a marriage for love much less desirable than one for money, even to a disliked spouse, and a marriage for love almost akin to a crime if not combined with wealth -; where servants were a necessary element of the aristocracy's life, even if largely treated as non-persons, banished to the basement and not even allowed to speak if not spoken to when called upstairs by virtue of their duties (notwithstanding the almost friendly relationship often existing between members of the two classes outside the public eye); where the perfect servant's existence was a life so unrealized that it often resulted in an overbearing interest in all aspects of his employer's life and in a precise emulation of the latter's prejudices, standards and pecking orders; where nevertheless domestic service was an important finishing school, especially for girls, frequently employed as early as at 12 or 14 years of age; where both "upstairs" and "downstairs" the greatest transgression against social etiquette was the causation of any kind of scene, as *nothing* was to be talked about as if it were truly important - requiring an immediate return to form if a breach of decorum had occurred after all - and where minute behavioral patterns such as a person's habits in pouring milk for his tea unfailingly exposed him as a member of one particular class, try as he might to associate himself with another. Yet, for all its observations, "Gosford Park" never judges: it takes each of its characters, and the entire unspoken "upstairs-downstairs" class arrangement at face value, leaving it up to its viewers to determine themselves what to make thereof.
The movie is named for the estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and wife Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), who have invited friends and family to that most English of all country sports events - a shooting party. And they have all come: Lady Sylvia's aunt Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), her sisters Louisa and Lavinia with husbands Lord Stockbridge and Commander Meredith (Geraldine Somerville, Natasha Wightman, Charles Dance and Tom Hollander), the Nesbitts (James Wilby and Claudie Blakley) and last but not least (real-life) actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam, who also displays his outstanding vocal talent with several of Novello's songs), along with Hollywood director Morris Wiseman (Bob Balaban), in England for research on a projected "Charlie Chan" movie, and young Henry Denton (Ryan Philippe), whom Wiseman presents as his valet. Yet, while Novello is the hosts' halfheartedly-tolerated relative, Wiseman and Denton are instantly identified as outsiders: Not only are they American, but Wiseman is Jewish (and thus, implicitly socially suspect), a vegetarian (making him even more suspect for "fussing" over his food) and swears on the telephone; and Denton is quickly branded disingenuous by the servants, particularly Lady Constance's young maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald) and Lord Stockbridge's valet Robert Parks (Clive Owen), only to incur even greater wrath both upstairs and downstairs when the full measure of his deception becomes apparent.
Despised by his wife and aristocratic in-laws and also, for reasons of their own, by his own staff, primarily housekeeper Jane Wilson and cook Elizabeth Croft (Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins), Sir William is found murdered after the second night's dinner. Enter Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) - and the movie's delicious survey gains another dimension, now also taking on the mystery genre; playing with it in "Charlie Chan" and "Pink Panther" fashion, with inept policemen, matching background music and cliches turned on their head, such as the obligatory assembly of all suspects, which here occurs at the investigation's beginning, not at its end.
While "Gosford Park"'s many awards are undoubtedly deserved, most fitting of all is its outstanding cast's SAG ensemble award; as all actors, including the late, great Alan Bates (butler Jennings), Derek Jacobi (Sir William's valet Probert), Richard E. Grant (first footman George) and Emily Watson (housemaid Elsie, Sir William's secret paramour and the only person grieving his death) put aside their claims to genuine starring roles in the interest of the ensemble's achievement. In addition to Robert Altman's, his son/production designer Stephen's and Julian Fellowes's painstaking attention to even the smallest set detail - including a king's ransom in tapestry and authentic vintage jewelry - and the counsel of several advisors with real-life service experience, all actors thoroughly researched the tenets of their roles; enabling them to respond in supreme fashion to Altman's preferred style of directing, which favors spontaneity, "mistakes" (often actually a movie's greatest moments), constantly moving cameras with shifting focus and overlaying, partly ad-libbed conversations over strict adherence to the script. The movie is jam-packed with information, each morsel provided only once; therefore, you not only should but actually must watch it several times to pick up on all the details you will necessarily miss initially. This is not a film for casual viewers, nor for fans of primarily plot-driven stories - but it is strongly recommended to those who appreciate delicate social comment and exquisitely-drawn characters.