An Appreciation – Gosford Park
There are others. Two important service members are the head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson) and the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren). Both are veterans in their work and are good at what they do. Mrs. Wilson describes herself as the perfect employee; she runs the house with a no-nonsense demeanor. While everyone is having fun during their time off, she is constantly working, prepping the next day’s activities and anticipating any potential problems that may arise. Elsie has seen and done everything; she is fully aware of the social hierarchy and where everybody belongs in it. She is the person Mary attaches to the most, and who provides insight to the many hidden secrets. The two are important because they work as the instigators for deconstructing the order of the house. Like everyone else, they have their secrets, too, and when those are revealed, everything changes dramatically. Affairs are brought to the forefront and dark pasts are shown, changing the way we see the characters (both upstairs and downstairs). Elsie and Mrs. Wilson show that no one is who they pretend to be; they all try to put up a front to hide their real personalities.
I hesitate to describe the details of the plot, because it acts only as a framework to allow the actors to shine. At the most basic level, it works like that of an Agatha Christie novel. The guests eat and drink, go out hunting, and socialize while wearing fancy dresses and tuxedos. When Sir William shockingly gets murdered in his study room, many get tagged as suspects. Sir William was not the kindest of people, and that fact is pointed out a few times. Some are not all that saddened by his loss, and go about their merry way through the rest of the weekend. What the murder does provide, however, is an opportunity for Stephen Fry to enter as the bumbling Inspector Thomson. With his few scenes, Fry leaves an impact with how incompetent his investigative skills are. His assistant, Constable Dexter (Ron Webster), is more apt to finding important clues, and the way Thomson brushes him off adds an effective comedic touch. What Thomson does see involves more with the British class system, and how the snobbish elitists depend almost entirely on the servant class. This goes to strengthen what Altman has been doing the entire time. This class structure is a strange but fascinating set-up, just begging to be torn down and examined. It would explain why it has been visited so often throughout history.
Murder, deceit, adultery, greed—these all play a significant part in the film. Why then, after we watch, is there a light and refined feeling? There are elements of darkness all throughout, and yet the film’s elegance, loveliness, and nostalgic qualities are remembered. I think much of that has to do with how Altman and the rest of the crew appear to have so much delight with what they’re doing. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Julian Fellowes has balance and style—we learn about each person by their actions. How they exist with one another tells us everything we need to know about them. We are not placed in a realistic environment, but in a contained world that can only exist in fiction. The actors know their roles, and jump in with enthusiasm instead of dread. It’s amazing to see such a large cast putting in dedication, despite the size of their respective parts. During any scene, you can point to a character in the background behaving exactly as they should. In one instance, the servants are hustling about, but if you look all the way to the back of the room, you can see Mrs. Wilson occasionally peering her head through a window, like the strict headmaster she is. They all seem to be having a grand old time, and in the hands of Altman, material we’ve seen before becomes fresh and inspired. It’s not every day you have a story of lies and betrayal, and yet want to revisit it time and time again.
And that’s the accomplishment that makes Gosford Park a great movie—how it allows things like love to rise to the surface. Despite all the deeper, darker threads going on throughout the house, there is an emotional longing above all. Many characters yearn for affection, while others have become jaded by the loss of it. They all wish to escape to a different place, where the things they worry about are no longer a concern. When Commander Meredith asks the servant Dorothy (Sophie Thompson) why some people are born privileged while others struggle for nothing, she answers by saying that she believes in love. I think it can be summarized by the opening verse of the main song, “The Land of Might Have Been.” Written by Edward Moore, composed by Ivor Novello, and performed by Jeremy Northam, it hints to the theme we should take away from the film:
“Somewhere there’s another land
different from this world below,
far more mercifully planned
than the cruel place we know.
Innocence and peace are there—
all is good that is desired.
Faces there are always fair;
love grows never old nor tired.”