Lost in the Movies: Gosford Park (Best of the 21st Century?)

Gosford Park (Best of the 21st Century?)

#89 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.

As Gosford Park opens, with its funereal tones, its period decor, its stately music and mise en scene (evoking the world of Merchant-Ivory), it hardly seems the most modern of Robert Altman's pictures - let alone the most postmodern. Yet, as the story of Gosford Park itself never tires of reminding us, appearances can be deceiving. Gosford Park is a delicious subversion of itself, and its narrative arc subtly mirrors a society's decline and eclipse - an age-old aristocracy faced with a rumbling underclass and a vulgar modernity (represented by an American visiting the estate; he is, of course, in the motion-picture business). A subtle society drama becomes a murder mystery becomes a farce becomes a happy ending; the movie opens with a rainstorm and closes in sunshine, and if there's something a bit ironic in its ultimate optimism, it's nonetheless cheerful and sincere after a fashion. The movie does not quite wear its twistiness on its sleeve, but by the end of the film the characters have broken all the rules of the game and come out smelling like roses - or dirt anyway, which is equally earthy.

From his breakthrough with M*A*S*H in 1970, the late Robert Altman always had what might be called a "postmodern" streak. His films were often self-conscious, ironic, and subversive takes on familiar genres. In his Korean War film he bloodied and sexed up the good old service comedies (and if that could be seen merely as updating the form, he also included a metatextual narrator over the camp loudspeaker, just to remind us we were watching a movie - his movie). The Long Goodbye gave Philip Marlowe a loopy 70s treatment, recasting the private eye with Hawaiian shirt and shaggy hair. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a revisionist Western in form (there had been many thematic revisions over the years, but few takes on the "wide-open West" were as visually perverse), and of course Popeye's bizarre live-action cartoonery was hardly the expected take on a classic cartoon - and may have been a wink too far for mainstream audiences.

Yet it seems odd to consider Altman a "postmodernist" with all the term's academic, intellectual connotations; after all, his style is so organic, so relaxed and intuitive that to read too much into it seems to be spoiling the fun. It figures, then, that in Gosford Park - in which the genre or form being played with has such a stuffy reputation - Altman's postmodern streak would become the most pronounced. At the same time, he has plenty to work with in this particular vein of storytelling; however hidebound it seems to modern audiences, the literary/cinematic "society party" (especially when its setting is interwar, as is Gosford Park) has always had subversion as its aim. Whether Brideshead Revisited, Crome Yellow, or (Altman's primary touchstone here) Rules of the Game the aristocracy on display was always in decline - we knew it, they knew it, and the authors made this their central subject. Even in earlier periods, when the ruling class seemed airtight, society was the subject of upstairs/downstairs farces poking fun at social constrictions and pointed to parallels between the supposedly divergent classes.

Nonetheless, these movies, books, and plays always operated by the rules of the game - even, ironically, Renoir's film. Usually they were created by members of the society they picked apart - if not actual aristocrats than Europeans who had opportunity to observe the upper classes in action, or at least from a distance. But Gosford Park was conceived by Americans (Altman and Bob Balaban, who plays the Hollywood mogul onscreen), carried out in the twenty-first century, and imbued with a sensibility decades past that of Waugh, Huxley, or Renoir. The screenplay itself was, interestingly, written by Julian Fellowes, a Brit of aristocratic lineage - a sort of last link to the world Gosford Park portrays with such nuance and understanding, all before pulling out the rug completely. The film follows those aforementioned rules - tensions unspoken, social hierarchies maintained, the inevitable and foreseeable decline of the world onscreen remaining politely offscreen - for much of its running length, but eventually sweeps them all away with the brash confidence of its American characters.

The film follows Mary Maceachram (Kelly MacDonald), a green Scottish maid to Lady Constance Trentham (a superb Maggie Smith), on her first visit to the estate at Gosford Park, where the McCordles preside. William (Michael Gambon) is the hardly patrician patriarch - an industrial tycoon who married into a broke aristocracy, represented by his coldly scornful wife Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Intrigue is afoot in the manor, but cloaks itself in whispered gossip and sly innuendo upstairs, while the servants speak more frankly amongst themselves but remain tight-lipped in the presence of their "superiors." Guests include the movie star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), accompanied by producer Morris Weissman (Balaban), while the house servants - including wise, weary Elsie (Emily Watson) - are overseen by an iron Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), whose soft side we catch in glimpses. Mostly it's spurred by interactions with the dashing but contemptuously silent visiting servant Robert Parks (Clive Owen), whose past is shrouded in mystery. There's another servant whose demeanor - like his Scotch accent - rings a bit false: Henry Denton (Ryan Philippe) who - spoiler alert - eventually turns out to be an American actor researching a part.

Henry's unveiling coincides with William's stabbing (though it seems he's so despised someone may have already poisoned him) - both events together signify the film's turning point, but perhaps it's the first which is more telling. The revelation that Henry is an actor underlines Gosford Park's status as self-conscious fiction, but his Americanness may be even more important: in this film, the Americans represent the complete rupture of this carefully guarded British social structure. Henry trespasses across class boundaries (to the annoyance of the servants even more than their masters), while Weissman's endless phone conversations about the new Charlie Chan movie he's working on seem to overlap with the actual murder investigation occurring onscreen. Inspector Thomson (Stephen Fry) shows up on the screen and proves to be delightfully incompetent; it's Altman and co. having more fun by puncturing the air of British pomposity - the inspector's social grace and artful accent, we're told, offer no indication of his actual skill. It's as if the filmmakers grew tired of the game they were playing and, Calvinball-style, started making up the rules as they went along.

More than just the surface of the narrative shifts in Gosford Park's final half-hour (the murder does not unfold until about two-thirds of the way into the movie). Characters become a bit more ridiculous, plot reveals take on a melodramatic tinge, and the film becomes more openly comical, less caustic in its wit or subtle in its style. In this it reminded of The Magnificent Ambersons, in which the film falls apart even as the family onscreen does. In that case, of course, the coincidence was purely accidental, a case of meddling moguls, whereas in Gosford Park the screenplay's shift into a broader, more obvious register is fully intentional and self-aware, even if still somewhat in earnest. (Even as we know that Mrs. Wilson's past role is a bit on-the-nose, or that Emily's rescue by Weissman too fairy-tale, we are happy for the characters and go along with the flow - this is not Adaptation-style metatext in which recognizing the subversion negates conventional enjoyment).

The clearest connection, already mentioned but worth repeating, is Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game. Both movies unfold at estates owned by arrivistes, both feature violent hunting scenes (though Gosford openly mocks its shooters' pretensions, even having a stray - ? - bullet graze William's neck) and of course both manifest their repressed hypocrisies and frustrations in a violent outburst. But Renoir's film takes place before the storm; the aristocrats end as shadows on the wall but for the moment they have maintained their shadow-play, tsk-tsking and heading back inside to enjoy one last fling before the real Danse Macabre envelops the globe. Gosford Park, while set in 1932, seems fully aware of the seventy years since and regards its characters with a mixture of affection and sardonic disbelief - an Altman trademark. It is ultimately a warm film, eager to explore its world, just as ready to throw off its restrictions when they no longer appear useful, and if it differs from Rules of the Game in its sensibility - parodic rather than satirical, amused rather than despairing - it nonetheless shares a fascination and relaxed sense of spontaneity with Renoir's movie.

Altman would be gone not long after Gosford Park, but the film endures as a final tribute to the French director, whose indulgence towards actors, quick-witted eye for ensembles, and (despite accusations of cynicism) warmly curious outlook on life he shared. Whether modern, postmodern, or traditional, it makes for a richly satisfying experience.

Previous film: My Winnipeg
Next film: The Headless Woman

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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