Tuesday, 3 August 2010

“Murder in the middle of the night, a lot of guests for the weekend, everyone's a suspect.”

Although it’s not my favourite film, I often think of Gosford Park as the sleekest films I know. I know it sounds perverse but was it a person; I think I’d be moved to seduce it. It’s even stranger when I consider the fact that there’s little that’s erotic about it. I cited it as my favourite ensemble of the last decade, and I’d probably call it the best ensemble if I included the nineties and eighties, too. Gosford Park is a film concerning class boundaries. A group of aristocrats, along with a film producer and actor, make their way to the eponymous Gosford Park (though it’s never referred to by name) for hunting, and other activities of the elite, for a few days. With all these genteel folks come their servants. In the midst of the second night, a murder occurs – the host. But this is not a Clue inspired piece; neither it is an Agatha Christie thriller. Certainly, a significant amount of beauty derives from a moving confession concerning the murderer, but Gosford Park is less concerned with who and more about how and why…and not just the how and why of the murder, but the lives of our characters – all of them. In this way, Gosford Park sets itself up for something almost akin to failure. The cast is expansive and Altman has to manoeuvre upstairs, downstairs, and back again and all this must be done whilst keeping the narrative taut, but maintaining sedateness that’s necessary. I feel it succeeds on all counts – it’s curious how Gosford Park doesn’t only improve on subsequent viewings but still manages to thrill just as much as the first time.
Alex (who adeptly juggles two blogs of note: Alex in Movieland and My Last Oscar Film) weighs in it and his words sum it up so perfectly:         
“It is by far my favourite Robert Altman! Even that says enough; and what could be more interesting than seeing the flawless product of a director at the height of his career? Nobody else could have directed this: the casting is great and the acting beyond words, probably Helen Mirren’s best performance (E/N: true dat). Gosford Park gathers comedy and mystery and drama and romance and wraps it all up in that touch of arrogance and glamour that just makes me wanna ask for more.”
I’m glad Alex touched on the genre shifting that’s occurring. I really can’t say how impressive it is that Gosford Park manages to touch on all that while still maintaining that austere brilliance. There’s a fluidity to Gosford Park even in its demarcated plotlines. I never think of it in pieces, but as one continuous narrative. The entire thing just flies by…It’s interesting though; I think of Kristin Scott Thomas first when I think of the actual film, for many reasons. She’s not my preferred performer in it (*that is she*), but she’s second. Sometimes I’m even more thrilled by her Sylvia McCordle than her Katherine Clifton, and considering how much I’m smitten with the latter – that’s no mean feat. There’s a marvellous dinner moment that always pleases me, I end up rewinding each time. Truthfully, it depends just as much on Emily Watson (her career best in my opinion) and Michael Gambon (deliciously wicked, here).
SYLVIA McCORDLE: Well, I know you're interested in money and fiddling with your guns. But I admit it: when it comes to anything else, I'm stumped.
The moment has more value than Elsie’s out-of-turn response. Kristin puts so much emotion into that single line reading and she’s such a steely hostess we rarely get to see her true feelings. Sure, she’s a bit of bitch but she’s an affable bitch despite the ostensibly cold exterior. She’s a strange woman, really. Her scintillating chemistry with Philippe is replaced with a frosty shoulder the next morning. Then there’s a moment that confuses me, I’m not sure if it’s Sylvia or Kristin caught unawares. When Henry Denton has the hot coffee spilt in his lap she releases an almost inauspicious titter that I never see coming no matter how I often I watch the film. It’s another reason why Gosford Park works so well, everything is just so realistic. And on that note of realism consider Yojimbo (of the sage Let’s Not Talk About Movies) and his thoughts…

“Robert Altman’s films are never tidy. They seem to happen “in media res,” as if he just turned on the camera and was filming events as they happened, and they were going to happen, camera or no, with no regard to film-making “rules.” People cluster in odd groups, talking over each other, the camera sometimes seeing nothing while over-hearing in its journey, sometimes separated from the crux of a scene by glass, by terrain, and by happenstance. It’s Robert Altman’s party, and we’re the wall-flowers, impotent, capable of doing nothing but observing and reacting. We are almost-innocent by-standers, detached, but complicit.

So, when Altman does a British family drawing room murder (and why anyone would be surprised that Altman would do such a film is itself a mystery, as he was eager to subvert all genres), it cannot end in a burst of connected dots and logic. It involves family, after all, and all families have secrets, as all houses have closets. And the foundation is shaky enough (the crises here being financial) that when one closet door closes, another opens. Families aren’t tidy, either, even after the blood stains get cleaned, the culprit is safely carted off in the Black Maria, and Altman turns off his camera. Murders, like families, are messy things, mysteries within puzzles within conundrums. As such, they are Altman’s natural turf.”

You could probably take his words and let me just shut up (but I’ve never been one to have a word filter…). It’s those intricacies that define Gosford Park. Blink and you’ll miss them, but pay attention and you’re in for an embarrassment of rewards. Gosford Park manages to seem ridiculously sagacious and yet still relatable. No we don’t live England where the class system is dying but we are people and take them from their setting and everyone at Gosford Park is a real person capable of all the human emotions we can imagine (from the grossest vices to the oddest bouts kindness). It’s the things like the fact that Sylvia can seem so austere but the slightest chink in her armour is obvious when her husband (inadvertently?) chooses her sister over her. Or the weirdest way in which Mabel is almost sickeningly enamoured with the movie guest – Jeffrey Northam who has the unenviable task of being both participant and voyeur in the film. Then there are the quotable lines which every actor milks (but not too much) but none more than Maggie Smith who’s line readings (I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body) – she manages to make any line turn into a scintillating example in caustic brilliance.
I’m never sure if Altman and Fellowes want us to feel that those downstairs are nobler than those upstairs, because they’re all quite wicked. Kelly MacDonald gets to play our ingénue and as a servant we get more insight into the workings of their minds. Emily Watson’s Elsie is in the same register as Scott Thomas’ cold Sylvia – of course the only thing that divides them is that one’s a maid and one’s a lady. It seems more than accident that our not-so-benevolent host is sleeping with them both (he is sleeping with his wife…right?) Then, all the hilarious if innocuous plot points are threatened when the emotional core takes precedent – that’s another part of Gosford Park that you’re unprepared for. Helen Mirren is just too excellent for words that I never can get over the highway robbery concerning her and that little golden man. Altman almost stifles us with one beautiful exposition after another, further enhancing the fluidity of the narrative. It’s more than that, though. Helen moves from the brilliance aloofness in her scene against McDonald to being compellingly moving without a word as she cries in the bedroom with Eileen Atkins. And speaking of Eileen Atkins… It’s weird how so few lines seem so weighty when a talented performer gets them – “Don’t cry, they’ll hear you.” It’s chilling.
The thing is, at the end of the day it wouldn’t be wrong to single out its style as Gosford Park’s saving grace. Strip it bare and what we have is the tale of the poor struggling in the world of rich (and the rich unhappy even though they’ve got it “all”) – it’s a world where the poor either strive for idealistic escape or succumb to their lives. It’s not that Altman and Fellowes cover up this simple ideology with fluff – nothing in the film could be termed as such. What they seem to realise is that life is made up of more than the black-and-white and the beauty in Gosford Park is watching these shades of the gray as the minutes go by, the beauty in reading a script that’s too perfect for words, the excellence in watching Altman submit his magnum opus and it’s the brilliance in seeing every single actor in the cast turn in an excellent performance (the most deserved SAG win I can remember). Here it appears at #5 on my list of favourites.
What (or who) would you single out as Gosford Park’s saving grace?


Alex in Movieland said...

interesting to see my writing there :P thanks for including it.

Also, please tell me you HAVE NOT seen Breaking the Waves. Otherwise, how can you not consider it Emily's best? :)

Twister said...

Excellent writeup! I have only seen the film once a while ago BUT look out in the near future for performance reviews on Maggs and Helen when I review the SA of 2001. Also, if you ever need/want any side opinions on these (like Alex or Yojimbo) then let me know.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Oh, I remember when I made my mother take me to see this in 7th grade after the Oscars (I tried to get her to take me before, but we never had time). Of course, Nashville is my favorite movie, period, but Gosford Park is my second-favorite Altman, and was my #1 film of forever until high school. I saw it for Maggie Smith, and wasn't disappointed, though this film wound up introducing me to a large number of actors that I adore. Claudie Blakley, Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Richard E. Grant...and, as you point out, the criminally robbed Helen Mirren! I remember arguing with my drama teacher about this, and she said, "But Jennifer Connelly ages." And I said, "The *character* ages; the *actress* is dull!" Those who can't...

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

alex i don't particularly love breaking the waves but i meant to write best *supporting* performance.

twister thanks.

walter claudie blakely is so good and underrated and considering that i like a beautiful mind a little i still find jennifer's win borderline offensive. dull, dull, dull.