Wednesday, February 3, 2010
In Gosford Park, Robert Altman revisits the territory of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, examining the separate worlds — "upstairs" and "downstairs" — of rich society people and their servants at a country mansion. Altman takes an even more systematic approach than Renoir, designing the film in terms of alternations between masters and servants, cutting back and forth between the two worlds to reflect the yawning gap in class and privilege between these two sets of people. His camera, almost constantly in motion, seems to flow easily from one world to the other, its movements fluidly continuing even as he cuts from upstairs to downstairs or vice versa.
The film is set in 1932 at a hunting party, just as in The Rules of the Game, and like Renoir's film the dual centerpiece is a bird-hunting expedition and a murder. The party is hosted by Sir William (Michael Gambon) and his young wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), gathering together their family and friends. Right from the beginning, it's obvious that this is a complicated situation, with mutual resentments, suspicions and intrigues floating around between these nasty, corrupt society people. Altman's camera drifts through the estate's corridors, lingering to capture secretive conversations and exchanges of bitchy gossip. As usual, his dialogue is densely layered, different conversations overlapping to create aural pile-ups where key facts and snippets of talk rise out of the general morass. Various stories and histories are buried beneath the thin veneer of society, and Altman allows these complex plots to emerge gradually from the characters' chatter, their oblique hints and threats. Everyone here is plotting at something, involved in some ugly secret that everyone seems to know about anyway in a place where no gossip remains submerged for long.
Some of those gathered here are looking to get something from the notoriously tight-fisted Sir William, as some among the family struggle to maintain the illusion of their status even as they're failing in business. In this context, class is actually divorced to some extent from money: what's more important than wealth is a good name, a family history, a status as one of the upper-class people. In fact, Sir William is supporting many of his supposedly high-society relations, including the elegant, self-possessed Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), to whom he gives an allowance that he's now threatening to cut off. Sir William seemingly makes enemies with ease. His staff almost uniformly hates him. His daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) resents his interference in her prospective marriage to Rupert (Laurence Fox), who's equally peeved that his attempts to marry into money and status are being foiled by William's resistance. Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander) is enraged by William backing out of an important business deal — selling boots to shoeless Nigerians, an absurd touch that reveals Altman's wry sense of humor — that could have salvaged the ruined Meredith's livelihood. Meanwhile, Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) is bitter because he thought he was marrying into wealth, if beneath his station, by wedding dowdy, hapless Mabel (Claudie Blakley), who it turns out didn't have nearly enough money to balance out the embarrassment of having her for a wife.
These intrigues emerge organically as Altman's camera weaves through the estate. With such a large cast, a great weight falls on the actors to convey the essence of their characters economically, in small gestures and details, like the way Mabel, easily the most sympathetic character among the "upstairs" crowd, yearns for some genuine love and affectionate from her verbally abusive husband. Her face dawns with childlike excitement when the singer and actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) asks her to join him at the piano, and she looks both ways first, as though to say, "who me?" Small touches like this, conveying a sad woman's disbelief that someone's actually paying attention to her for some reason other than spewing insults, are everywhere in Altman's dense, cluttered mise en scène. Even throwaway details, like the usually dour, snooty Lady Trentham's disarming habit of saying "yummy yummy" when she enjoys a meal, add to the richness of Altman's portrayal.
This is equally true of the "downstairs" servants, who have their own complex and richly developed world, entirely separate from that of the masters even though the two groups inhabit more or less the same space. Altman's handling of this division is brilliant, keeping the two worlds entirely distinct and yet subtly intermingled; his cross-cutting neatly separates the bustle of the kitchen from the stately low-key drone of the drawing room. And yet, in every scene "upstairs," the servants are present, quietly lingering in the background, unseen and ignored by the party's guests and thus only occasionally glimpsed by Altman's camera as it darts around the room. This separation, and the impression, constantly reinforced, that the servants are not to be noticed, makes the moments when a servant does break the barrier all the more startling. At one point, the maid Elsie (Emily Watson), who has a genuine affection for her employer (and lover) Sir William, speaks up indignantly to defend him against the insults of his family, blurting out a retort before realizing what she is saying and running away. It is an unthinkable breach, and Altman makes it as shocking for the audience as for the assembled guests. He had so thoroughly established the guidelines and boundaries separating these two worlds that Elsie's mistake feels absolutely devastating, as it must have for her and for the guests so used to unobtrusive, unobjectionable domestic help.
Lady Trentham's maid Mary (Kelly MacDonald) is the audience's surrogate in exploring the "downstairs" world of the film. She is an inexperienced young girl, nervous and shy, just becoming used to her profession and overwhelmed by the complex etiquette and rules governing special occasions like this one. She is thrown off, especially, by the insistence that, while she's here, she will be known as Trentham, thus entirely losing her identity to her employer even while among her own class equals. The servants are known, among themselves, only by the names of their masters, the ultimate submersion of their identities into their occupation. As the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) says late in the film, as a good servant she has no life of her own, and it genuinely seems to be true. The other outsider amongst the servants here is Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), supposedly the servant of American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, who is also co-credited with Altman for the film's idea). As the film goes on, Denton's cocky attitude and unsubtle curiosity about the estate's workings are revealed to be the symptoms of a ruse: he's not actually a butler, he's an actor studying for a part and, it's heavily hinted, also Weissman's gay lover (a situation presumably not permitted in this judgmental high-society context). His subterfuge thus allows him to be the only character in the film who traverses both worlds, though a maid tells him, after the deceit is revealed, that he "can't be on both teams at once," and once he's no longer a servant he's treated with the same aloof subservience as the other guests.
Altman's most sustained attempt to bring the two worlds together, however, comes during the pivotal scene where Novello sits at the piano to play and sing one night, while the various upper-crust guests scheme and bicker around him, and a murderer sneaks around the house in the dark implementing a violent crime. As Novello sings, the servants gather around the house, in darkened corridors, listening with expressions of satisfied awe on their faces; they are deeply moved by this music, by the beauty and humor of Novello's singing. Novello, too, is a bit of an outcast among these upper-class people; his status in the entertainment business makes him an object of scorn. At dinner one night, the guests had asked Weissman to describe the movie he was making, urging him even to give away the ending, since none of them will go see it anyway. Such things are beneath them, and though they had urged Novello to play the piano, to entertain them, they aren't happy with the entertainment they get, grumbling that they'd expected background music, easy to ignore, instead of these lively, emotional songs. Only the servants seem touched by the music, happy to have this rare opportunity to experience a great entertainer's work firsthand. These are some of the film's most beautiful scenes, capturing the servants standing in the dark, their faces illuminated by thin slivers of light emanating from the lit-up drawing room, dancing silently in back rooms out of sight. Nowhere else in the film is the concept of two separate worlds more poignantly expressed than here, as the "upstairs" people ignore and snicker about Novello's music while the "downstairs" folk, hidden away everywhere around the house, respond deeply to what they hear. Novello's true audience is the one he can't see, and his music has far-ranging effects he probably doesn't even suspect — it's a wonderful expression of the way art flows away from its maker to affect and touch the lives of others in ways the artist can't control or predict.
Such subtle subtexts flow through the film, especially once the central murder occurs and its aftermath stirs up all sorts of secrets about Sir William and his exploitation of his privilege and status, as well as his surprising connections to the servant Robert Parks (Clive Owen). The murder also occasions some of Altman's blackest dark humor, in the form of the inept investigator Thompson (Stephen Fry), who haplessly puts his fingers on everything at the crime scene and seems utterly disinterested when his deputy keeps bringing up all sorts of potential evidence. He's complicit in the upper-class insistence on keeping secrets, on not stirring up trouble; he puts on a show of being a hard-nosed interrogator, but his questions never lead anywhere. He must be utterly conscious, too, of the pressure on him to not cause trouble; he questions Mary in front of Lady Trentham, asking the girl questions about her employer that he has to know she can't possibly answer truthfully with the lady sitting right there. Status and class are ultimate barriers, keeping these people apart and preserving the status quo even through the most devastating of breaks; life resumes its normal course almost instantly for these people, who won't break from their routines and pretenses even for the sake of a murder. They are unruffled, and perhaps unruffleable, comfortable in their tradition and their empty decorum.