Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Gosford Park

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.


Andrew K. said...

Lovely write-up. Words cannot express how much I love this film - okay, maybe they can. Favourite Altman film.

I know that Sylvia is not ostensibly sympathetic but I love how Kristin Scott Thomas layers the performance like when she must defer to her sister as far as William is concerned [love when she kicked the dog] and I like when Elsie's outburst occurs she looks really hurt for a split second.

bill r. said...

God, I love this movie. I think in time it will be regarded as one of Altman's supreme masterpieces. The acting is just ridiculous. Nobody steps wrong. It's astonishing stuff.

Sorry. Like Andrew, I have a hard time expressing my love of this one without gushing.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Good work. The film is gret fun, displaying the sort of effortlessness Altman had with ensemble casts that precious few filmmakers ever came close to.

Thugh he's scarcely known outside of the UK, Ivor Novello was not only a matinee idol, he was popular songwriter as well -- and very mucha rival fo Noel Coward in his lightest and wittiest vein. And like Coward he was gay -- leading here to the servants bickering over who's going to get a crack at him.

The grand finale is one of those acting moments that only an artist as great as Helen Mirren can pull off.

Nice that Alan Bates got a final curtain call with this lovely entertianemtn.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, guys. I totally agree about how great this film is, obviously. It's just so rich, with so much going on in every nuanced performance and every backgrounded subplot.

Ed Howard said...

And David, I love all the stuff with Novello, especially his non-plussed reactions to all Constance's bitchy quips directed at him, and the gay servant's perpetual disappointment at not being able to tend to him, and of course his long stay at the piano is a highlight of the film.

bill r. said...

The Ivor Novello song (which Northam sings beautifully) at the end, "The Land of Might-Have-Been", is utterly beautiful, and sent me on a hunt for it for many years afterwards. I have it now, and I was probably overthinking my search, but the point is, great song.

bill r. said...

I should have said, also, that while the song is beautiful, if viewed through the context of Novello's life, it's completely gut-wrenching, and almost hard to listen to.

Adam Zanzie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Howard said...

Adam, I thought the same thing at first, too, but apparently she was talking about the 1932 sound remake of The Lodger, which also starred Novello and really was a big flop.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Aha! I'd always wondered abotu that because the Hitchcock version was a big hit.

BTW, Malcolm McDowell makes his entrance in If. . . dressed to look exactly like Ivor Novello in The Lodger.

Brian Doan said...

Hey Ed,
Sorry to be off-topic. I think you might have already been named by Bill, but I nominated you for this blogging award, and one of the "rules" is letting the winners know. Please feel free to play along or ignore. Hope you are doing well!

And I love, love, love this movie, too. Thank you for the lovely post.

Sam Juliano said...

It's an exquisite film, showcasing the best "component" craftsmanship of any Altman film, though it's really his only foray into the kind of drama that was perfected by Merchant-Ivory. While your rightful acknowledgement of Renoir's masterpiece can't be topped by way of reference, the obvious comparsion of course in the BBC series, whose name belies this films narrative essence. I love all the actors, but my favorite performance here was by Helen Mirren.

This is an exhaustive celebration here of one of Altman's greatest films.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Brian, I really appreciate it.

Sam, I'm not familiar with the Merchant Ivory films, but that seems like a good comparison, too.