Gosford Park (2001)

Directed by Robert Altman

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I had to turn on the subtitles for Gosford Park.  Robert Altman loves to show you a roomful of people talking right over each other.  It feels realistic, documentary-like and with all the sharp, royal accents here I had trouble picking up individual lines.  But that’s part of the point.  It’s usually not about what one particular character says but about the energy of the room as a whole.  We pick up on the culture, personality and rhythms of the group as if it is collectively a single organism.  In this particular movie we absorb the ways two different classes of people speak and relate to each other.

The story is set in 1932, the action limited to an estate somewhere in England.  They are there to celebrate… well something, and it’s all centered around William McCordle (played by Altman’s kind of look-alike Michael Gambon), a surly old man who will find himself both poisoned and stabbed before the weekend’s over.

So it’s a murder mystery like “Clue,” but that murder takes place about 80 minutes into the film.  The answer to that mystery eventually unfolds with an unexpected swiftness, almost as if it was an afterthought.  I think that’s because it kind of is an afterthought, at least to the viewer.

The movie works as well as it does because it simply captures what feels like an honest glimpse into another world.  The details of this estate and how the characters speak, act and carry themselves is so fascinating.  They are on two ends of a spectrum, the rich and the servants, and they exist almost as mirror images to each other.  The servants literally live beneath those they serve, and to avoid confusion (since the rich travel with their own personal valets) they take the names of those they serve.

There is a rigid structure to all of this, but of course by the end there will be some level of chaos.  It’s as though such a social hierarchy is inhuman, a sign of greed and ego, to put each other and ourselves in a box.  And yet many of the characters willfully play their part, not just the wealthy but the servants too.

One of those servants, played by Helen Mirren, often lingers to the side of the main action.  She is silent and nearly invisible, but because she’s played by Mirren you figure she’ll factor into the storyline in a major way.  When she does get involved, she tells another character, “I am the perfect servant. I have no life.”

There’s something here about the ways in which we put ourselves into boxes and the ways in which we find meaning within our circumstances.  Some of those who serve take great pride in their role and responsibilities.  In fact they seem to express much more pride and perhaps even joy in what they do than do those they serve.  There is more meaning in service than in whatever the hell the upper class is up to.

Most of those wealthy figures have little to do but shoot pheasants, gossip and drink.  Beyond that they are defined by other less welcome characteristics.  One is a Hollywood producer, for example, who annoys the others with his loud phone calls to California to discuss the Charlie Chan picture he’s about to make (that just so happens to mirror the events of this film).  Another is an actor who inspires worship from some and eye rolls from others, the latter who can’t let him forget that his last picture was a flop.

It’s a compelling world because it is at once easy to understand and completely confounding.  Characters are alternately maddening and sympathetic, at least some of them.  They are shades of grey, though many border on unlikeable because enough of them have a grievance with the dead man to suggest they could be the murderer.

So a story like this has to make the dead man unlikeable so that the mystery surrounding his death is more of a game than a tragedy, one that we’re eager to play.  And to give us enough suspects and red herrings to fill the runtime, there are plenty of characters who loathe or fear the old man.  This makes it easy to leer at and critique, but they are still immensely vulnerable, even if they try to hide it.

At the very least they are all damaged, no matter how nice they look when dressed to the nines.  Some have revenge on the mind, others are fearful of losing whatever power they have, and several lust after each other.  They are stuck in rigid social and economic positions, and yet they are constantly on the move, suggesting a certain fluidity to their positions or at least personal attitudes.  They are both stuck and free forming.

Up Next: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019), Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), Moonrise (1948)

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