Robert Altman’s new movie opens on a downpour. A subtitle helpfully informs you that it’s November 1932, and the camera — restless, as in all Altman’s films — prowls up on a sedan parked in a well-appointed driveway, before a large mansion. An obviously inexperienced maid, Mary (Kelly Macdonald), shivers and stumbles in the rain, while loading several suitcases into a car, for her employer, the elegantly fuss-budgety Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith). Only after the Countess is also deposited in the car does a soggy Mary trot round to the front seat, where she rides with the driver, ready to wait on her lady when so called. The car pulls out of the driveway. The opening credits end and Gosford Park begins.
The film that follows is a dark, dryly humorous critique of class privilege and artful etiquette. Not unlike The Player, Ready to Wear, Short Cuts, or Dr. T and the Women, the new movie takes easy aim at a culture, here the infinitely scoldable post-WWI British high society. It doesn’t bring to light anything you won’t know already, even if you’ve never seen a single episode of Upstairs Downstairs. Rather, the film is yet another Altmanian diversion premised on everyone feeling smug and clued-up — characters and viewers alike.
The occasion for this exercise in self-congratulation is a weekend hunting party at Gosford Park, the estate of the nouveau riche Sir William and (the Countess’s niece) Lady Sylvia McCordle (Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott-Thomas). Unhappily married — she for money, he for status — the couple hosts such affairs because it’s what’s done, but both are obviously miserable throughout the weekend, the “hardhearted” Sir William perhaps especially, as he will be the character to end up murdered, thus setting in motion a couple of parallel investigations, one by inept Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry), the other by our Mary, actually less interested in who might want to kill the licentious Sir William than to clear the name of her new friend, Sir William’s housemaid and lover, Elsie (Emily Watson).
So far, so complicated. And, as Julian Fellowes’ script has it, Sir William’s murder is only the most overt violence that occurs over the weekend. The film explores, in an aptly superficial way, the many violations and abuses that make up this class system. Sir William and Lady Sylvia’s daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), is as unhappy as you’d imagine, given that her parents despise one another and that she’s basically being stalked by a supercilious lord-wannabe, Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby, who scarily looks like he hasn’t aged a day since Maurice). While he tries very hard to seduce Isobel, his own kind-hearted wife, Mabel (Claudie Blakley), hangs about on the edges of the frame, so obviously battered by her husband into thinking she’s not pretty or cultured “enough” that a maid takes pity on her.
Other guests include Sylvia’s sister, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) and her half-deaf and wholly clueless husband, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance), and several Americans — actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), Charlie Chan movie producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), and their valet Henry (Ryan Phillippe), whose unpersuasive Scottish accent makes him suspicious right off the bat (particularly to the Scottish Mary). Constance is no doubt the sniffiest and most snarkily delightful of these folks, unafraid to cut off anyone at the knees (“There’s always so little to talk about after the first flash of recognition,” she observes); she is especially harsh on the self-loving, piano-playing movie actor, whom she clearly regards as a crass interloper.
At the same time, Constance plies Mary for gossip from downstairs, where the servants go through the same sorts of motions, with less publicity and less cash at stake. The head of the household, Mrs. Wilson (the remarkable Helen Mirren, who makes the tiniest moment weighty with meaning you’ll never know), efficiently oversees her crew — housemaid and Sir William’s lover Elsie (Emily Watson); Sir William’s very proper valet Probert (Derek Jacobi); the cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins); smarmy footman George (Richard E. Grant), as well as the visiting servants — Mary, Henry, Lord Stockbridge’s valet Robert (Clive Owen), and a squad of seemingly obedient, aproned or tuxedoed, mostly nameless, others.
As all participants settle in for the weekend, finding their assigned rooms and lining up the outfits they’ll be wearing for each event (even, heaven forfend, announce their culinary preferences — the crass Weissman is a vegetarian), Altman’s camera lingers on bottles of poison and knives in the pantry, so you know that something untoward is in the offing. But, as murder seems almost too good for some of these people, you’re more concerned with the Charlie Channish unraveling of the plot than with any one of them.
While Mrs. Wilson and Probert take pride in doing their duties well, other downstairs denizens are less invested. When the dinner table discussion turns to the ways that one’s parents’ professions (presumably in service) influence one’s own career “choice,” Robert lets drop the significant fact he grew up in an orphanage. For him, then, station has little to do with identity, a concept that Henry drives home when it’s revealed that he’s not a valet at all, but a Hollywood actor doing “research” for a part. However, where Robert is indeed a servant, and respects the work and courage involved, Henry is willfully ignorant. His disregard for those who do understand their stations as unchangeable leads to a cold rebuke — “You can’t be on both teams as once.”
This notion of teams, with attending loyalties and competitions, is crossed up of course, to benefit those who reside upstairs: so, Isobel unburdens herself and smokes cigarettes with Elsie, Sylvia beds Henry (when he’s still apparently playing a servant), and various titled men sleep with female servants. While it might appear that the film’s class analysis is of less interest than the intricacies of these relationships, in fact, none of the relationships receives more than cursory attention. Gosford Park is about surfaces, and also composed of them.
While Gosford Park is clever and sophisticated, it’s also unsurprising. The DVD offers a short documentary on “the authenticity” of the film; a q&a session with the couple of separate commentary tracks, one by Altman and Bob Balaban, and another by screenwriter Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for his efforts). Fellowes’ has to do with characterization, motivation, and relationships, with a few self-effacing notations of details he can’t help but see (how many coffee cups are on a tray), his understanding of the film’s themes or “hallmarks” (“Everyone seems to be doing something they’re very familiar with; they know what they’re doing”); and the fact that peripheral minutiae, say, references to Clara Bow, are grounded in history.
Altman’s observations meander as made-for-DVD commentary tracks tend to do, usually saying why he made specific decisions — why the film starts in the rain, why he made music selections, how they managed the bird-shooting (the crew shot birds, froze them, then threw them up in the air as characters were supposed to be shooting them), and how he sees the film as a elaborate “soap opera,” and how Ryan Phillippe’s party-crashing “American” actor allows for explanation of “British” customs, as he asks basic questions. Such reflections are vaguely interesting, but, much like the film, unsurprising. Altman gives respectful love to his performers (“I could say this of all the actors in the film; I don’t think there’s anyone better than they are”), remarks on Jeremy Northam’s talents as a pianist, and points out a dissolve for “you film buffs.”