An Appreciation – Gosford Park
The beauty of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) is how it delicately balances the numerous storylines to create a wonderful mosaic of characters. We’re not so much concerned with what happens, but with how everything unfolds. We’re familiar with the set-up—from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) all the way to Downton Abbey. But in the hands of Altman, we weave through and around the intricacies of the British class system with breathless ease. There’s a joyous tone in every scene, even when characters go through some darker stretches. Their performances bounce off one another with charm and grace, as though everyone is moving in unison. And when hidden secrets are revealed and danger peeks its head around the corner, we carry on almost unaffected. The cast and crew march forward, having way too much fun to allow such trivial things as murder get in their way.
That’s not to say the characters don’t take themselves seriously, because they do. There are real emotions at play, even when set within such a labyrinthine plot. But at no time does this feel drab. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The story is set in a British country house in 1932, where a family invites a number of aristocratic friends and relatives over for a weekend-long shooting party. The house is separated into two sections: the wealthy family and their guests in the upper floors, and the numerous servants that populate the lower levels. Each person brings or is assigned a servant, and much of the mechanics involve how they all work together. With such a large group of people held within the confines of the house, the joy lies in seeing how they intertwine, or clash headfirst.
It’s not a shock, then, that Robert Altman would tackle this material. He was always known to work with large casts. From MASH (1970) to Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993), Altman was a master of juggling numerous threads and giving each the kind of attention it deserved. Gosford Park is as good as anything he’s ever made. Known as one of cinema’s great rebels, Altman never settled for conventional storytelling. In fact, he set a precedent for future filmmakers by breaking the rules. Directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson openly acknowledge how much of an influence he really was. He was famous for his improvisation, almost always diverting from what was written. Actors were given the freedom to do and say what they pleased, and by providing each with their own microphone, Altman was able to capture different conversations happening at the same time.
The technique allowed everyone within a scene to have importance, and rewards repeat audiences with surprises they may not have caught at first watch. This film is no different. Notice how Altman’s camera is constantly moving—very rarely is it stationary. The frame often pulls back in a wide shot, capturing an entire room and everyone in it. At certain points, we aren’t sure where we’re supposed to be looking, because Altman wants us to be looking everywhere. For example, in the sequence where the singer/actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) sits at the piano and performs for the guests, there are numerous things happening simultaneously. Some people are playing cards, others sit at a nearby couch, and servants sneak a listen just behind a doorway. Nearly all of them are conversing while Novello sings. This way, Altman creates a world that feels alive—living and breathing in front, beside, and behind the camera.
How he was able to do this while giving each of the important characters enough space to develop still seems like a mystery. Colorful names and faces fill the house, and each manages to leave an impression despite their limited screen time. The head of the house is Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), whose love for his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) clearly ended years ago. Lady Sylvia’s sister Lavinia (Natasha Wightman) is married to Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander), who comes to the party in hopes of getting financial assistance. Standing out from the others is Sir William’s sister Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), a tough old lady with a wicked talent for saying an inappropriate remark at just the right moment. Maggie Smith is her usual self in this role, stealing every scene she’s in. When other guests applaud Novello for his singing, she quickly dashes it by saying, “Please don’t encourage him.” And when the movie producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) refuses to spoil for everyone the story of his next project, Constance politely reminds him that none of them are going to see it anyway.
If the partygoers are a special kind of breed, they’re nothing compared to the mischievousness of the service members. They know how to play by the rules, and they know how to put on a proper face, but when left on their own, hijinks ensue. Rumors spread like wildfire, and during the late night hours, some can be found consorting with other members of the house. In the middle of all this is Constance’s maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald). Mary is the center; we connect to events through her eyes. She weaves between the upper and lower floors, and senses the kind of social dynamics at play. She relays information to both sides of the house, and has a kind of respect and admiration for each. This would explain her cautious attitude toward those that appear out of the ordinary. Mary can tell Mr. Weissman’s valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe) is not from any part of Scotland she knows based on his accent, and that there is something strange about the valet Parks (Clive Owen) and how he moves around seemingly without a care in the world.