The appetiser with Gosford Park is carving out an immediate set of finely-tuned, immaculately-drawn characters. Academy Award winner Julian Fellowes ought to still be held in such high praise for a screenplay so devilishly tantalising, word-for-word, that he earns that badge without a mention of Downton Abbey or that he beat Christopher Nolan’s Memento on Oscar night.
Nolan had the innovation, and the audacity, sure, but Fellowes crafted a marvel of social class, unhindered conflict, and fresh, flourishing displays of pure comedy with Gosford Park. An early twentieth century, country state house murder mystery like no other. No, really.
Fellowes was approached by Bob Balaban and Robert Altman, with that distinct story in mind. Perhaps too much Agatha Christie and nights-in playing enduring bouts of Cluedo has its perks.
The script by Fellowes was a meticulous, first-class operation, and this definitely shows in the finished product, as well as on the pristine pages. Fellowes did not exactly write the scenes in continuity, rather each character was given the carefully constructed conversations, historically relevant and polished for social graces. Even the elaborate menu and the daily schedule of the house staff came from the mighty pen of Fellowes.
This seemed the perfect foil for Altman, returning to the ensemble picture that so many associate with the filmmaker. Altman and some his crew (including production designer son, Stephen) researched and prepared the wallpaper, they visited stately homes to get a feel for the setting.
And they were safe in the hands of Jenny Beavan when it came to the incredibly diverse costumes. The unfathomable amount of glasses, silverware, candles, cutlery, crockery, linen, I mean, the list is endless. Even the rain that fell on the day of the opening shot, a car rolling through a puddle reflecting the manor, was a stroke of technical luck.
The great director Altman’s touch is all over this. Gosford Park is a master work of acting assemblage, couriered by the only man who could have made the likes of M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts the way he wanted. And the way he can. Somehow in control of the enormous cast of players, Altman is a connoisseur in this field.
Like his previous multi-acting efforts, you may need to watch Gosford Park numerous times to catch the facial expressions, the movements of the characters, and I am talking the background, away from the primary action. Hints and clues can be found in the sniggers, the smug expressions, the glares, the head turns. The depths of physical character mapping is astonishing.
Altman was delighted with the terrific collection of acting talent in Gosford Park, even though he had made the ensemble one of his primary trademarks, its liberating that the accomplishments of the performances can still impress him. And why not? The direction is like clockwork. The timing is impeccable.
Look at the scene when the downstairs crew are arriving or preparing for the newcomers. The moment Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) and Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) are both in the frame at exactly the right time to hear Parks (Clive Owen) give his name. Their surprised faces hint at a revelation revealed later, one that also has layers of clandestine significence.
Nearly every action, or spoken dialogue, big or small, upstairs or down, delivers information about these people, their relationships, their history, and perhaps hints on their not-so-distant future. There’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment as Sylvia (Kristen Scott Thomas) huddles up to Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance), who darts off like an irritated child. It supplies the suspicion of mischief without all or any of the facts. Or having to stop the car in the pouring rain, so that new housemaid Mary (Kelly MacDonald) can assist the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) with her tea flask – “I can’t open this wretched thing.” Such an urgent matter for the privileged.
Not so important, perhaps, is Henry’s (Ryan Phillippe) hat as he attempts to brush off the flour in timid annoyance. An awkward visit to the below stairs kitchen is the least of his worries. Valet to American movie producer Weissman (Bob Balaban), none of the residents, both upstairs and downstairs, appear to even like Henry. In fact, many find his presence suspicious.
Foreman George (Richard E. Grant) finds him loitering, and tells him “If I were you I would go look around somewhere else.” Mary spots the fake Scottish accent a mile off. Straight-talking Elsie (Emily Watson) leaves him waiting, and wanting, when he makes a pass at her, before she closes the door in his face. Their hunches are valid. Later, George purposefully spills tea on him, and only Henry does not find this amusing.
The real pest is the man at the top. Sir William (Michael Gambon) is a cantankerous, sly dog – whose best friend is actually the fluffy little canine constantly tucked under his arm. Despised by his wife Sylvia, adored by the flirtatious Lady Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville), Bill seems to make it his living getting under the skin of others.
Even his house staff, the respectable Mrs. Wilson brings him coffee, to which he snaps “If I wanted coffee I’d have rang for it.”, knocking the beverage from her hand, smashing to the floor. A mess we may or may not notice she does not clean up. More pressimg matters. The pompous arse, head-to-head, is, though, somehow admired by Elsie. When he pats her breast, “You have some hair on your dress.”, their relationship has a pulse beyond the mere master / servant tolerance.
And although there is that class / lifestyle divide between those stairs, the manners and motives change in discourse when ears are eyes are far away. When George hears a couple of people talking, he is referred to as “nobody” when one believes he should not be sneaking about. Young Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) is entangled in some emotional contract with Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby), an arrogant twerp who talks to his wife Mabel (Claudie Blakley) like she was something the horse left on the gravel.
And poor Anthony (Tom Hollander), kidding himself he has some business with Sir William. Recoupance will be his. These rather sympathetic souls, like Isobel, Mabel, Mary, offer a sweet-natured honesty amidst the cynicism and crass behaviour.
Downstairs, the house staff appear to hold all the cards. They may not have the riches, nor the cuisine, but their knowledge of the world upstairs makes for compelling gossip as well as deep, dark secrets. And they have their fair share of baggage. Butler, Mr. Jennings (Alan Bates) is slowly slipping into paranoia at his own troubled past.
Only the special guest, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), seems free of the social pollution, somewhat dictating the ambiance while he spends a good part of proceedings at the piano singing songs. To which many many in the house find solace.
“This house is a poisoners paradise.” claims one police officer, attending the house on a matter of urgency. He’s talking of the actual bottles of the stuff in the kitchen. You can clearly see a couple of bottles of it on the shelf in the opening moments when Mary arrives. Altman wants you to see it. Maybe not the first time, at least not as you know it.
The venomous nature and repercussions of the film’s events make a mockery of the well-off, and give at least some dignity to those that serve them. Though the partition aside, the sparks and snarks are likely as strong from both sides of the wall.
With Julian Fellowes writing such an extraordinary manual for conformity, a delicious recipe for mystery, humor, and deep-seeded characterization, Robert Altman must have counted all his lucky stars when he first read it. The director does his usual steady gliding with the camera, so much you barely notice at times. Brings you into the surroundings effortlessly. And those occasional, perfectly-poised zooms, in and out, are as subtlety persuasive, effectual, as filmmaking can be.
And don’t forget to save hat-tips for the crowd of acting excellence in Gosford Park. So many names to flash a torch on, I will mention nobody in particular. Every one of them has shining moments. Every scene, word uttered, sigh breathed, every step taken, make for damn good entertainment. It was, if anything, an unmissable reminder of how great Mr. Altman was, constructing a majestic whole from so many integral parts.