The movie Gosford Park takes place during a weekend shooting party on an English country estate during the 1930s. The house belongs to Sir William McCordle, who is very wealthy. He owns several sweatshops, and he supports almost all the members of his wife's family. Even with all this, however, he has no control over who he sits next to at dinner in his own home.
He always has to sit next to his wife's aunt Constance, the Countess of Trentham, although he dislikes her, and he never gets to sit next to his sister-in-law Louisa, whom he likes perhaps a little too much. This has nothing to do with Lady Trentham's age or her relationship to him, it's because, as a Countess, she is the highest ranking woman there, according to the table of precedence, so she is always seated to the right of the host.
This strict seating plan extends below stairs as well, so Lady Trentham's maid Mary gets the place of honor at the servants' dinner table, at the butler's right, even though she is the least experienced servant in the house. And, like all the visiting servants, she is called my her mistress' name when she is below stairs, rather than by her own.
Gosford Park uses the form of a 1930s English country house murder mystery, but the movie doesn't care much about the murder and neither do we. The murder is in the center of the picture, but what's happening around the edges is usually a lot more interesting.
We see the machinery of a huge country house like that, and all the procedures and routines that keep it going. Almost everybody knows what they should be doing and how they should be acting, and the few exceptions, like Mary and a visiting American movie producer, allow us to find out exactly how complex and rigid the whole system really is. All of the duties and responsibilities of the different servants are very carefully researched, and it shows.
We also see some very complex family relationships, both above and below stairs, much of which is just hinted at. As in most Altman films, information is given but not emphasized or repeated.
This is a movie which only has its full effect when you see it more than once, in a way that Altman never would have done twenty or thirty years ago. But in the age of video and DVD, people watch movies again and again, and he knows that. Gosford Park is designed to reward repeated viewings, since some scenes will appear to be one thing the first time around, but on a second viewing will reveal themselves to be something very different.
Freddie Nesbitt: Don't worry, it's nobody.
At the beginning of the movie, we see some of the guests arrive in front of the huge house, and as they enter we expect to enter with them, but we don't. Instead, we abruptly find ourselves entering below stairs, with the visiting servants. We're in the engine room of the ship, not on the main deck, and we see the rest of the weekend from the point of view of the servants. We don't see anything above stairs unless at least one servant is present.
This allows us to see, among other things, how invisible the servants are, because extraordinary things are said and done in front of them as if they're just another chair or lamp. I've seen very similar behavior in the corporate world, in fact, but obviously not to this extent, and certainly not this consistently.
What keeps it all going is not only the economics of it, that William McCordle owns enough sweatshops to run a huge country house and to buy his way into an aristocratic family, but the other thing which maintains the whole structure is that the people involved all end up having a stake in it, to some extent, even the servants (especially the senior ones). They maintain their own hierarchies and protocols just as much as the aristocracy, and they are very aware of the respect they get because of their position in the house.
Service was a job, and for a lot of people it was a very good and desirable job, but it was a lot more. It became your home as well, and, especially since there were few married servants, it tended to become your family. Many people went into service in their early teens, like the hallboys who serve the dinner for the servants, so for them it was a vocational school as well. And it was all, as we know but they do not, about to end, since comparatively few people maintained this kind of house after World War II.
And, as in many families or small towns, everybody knows what everybody else is up to, even if they don't talk about it. Everybody knows about Lady Sylvia and her taste for handsome visiting servants, everybody knows that Jennings, the butler, is a drunk, everybody knows about Sir William and Elsie, the head housemaid, everybody knows about Bertha the kitchen maid and her various liaisons, and everybody knows about Arthur, the gay second footman, who is always hoping to be allowed to dress Ivor Novello, a visiting film star (who doesn't have his own valet), but things are always worked out so that he doesn't get the chance.
In this world, for everyone you encounter there is an appropriate form of address, and an appropriate way to act, and for every part of every day there is an appropriate way to dress. The visiting American film producer, who has several strikes against him (he's American, Jewish, vegetarian, gay, and he produces Charlie Chan movies), never succeeds in saying or doing or wearing the correct thing in any situation, but, being an American, he's usually completely unaware of this.
He's an outsider, like "Opal from the BBC" in Nashville, and Altman uses him to show us interesting information along the way, like the fact that breakfast in a house like that was the opposite of dinner. It was served buffet style, everybody sat where they wanted, people read the newspaper and it was all very relaxed.
Many of the major characters (and there are a lot of them) are supplied with quite a bit of back story, but frequently only in a comment or two. Most of it is not essential to the "plot," so you can absorb as much or as little as you like.
For example, at some time in the past, the Earl of Carton (who we never meet) wanted one of his daughters to marry William McCordle. As happened very often (and still does), the Earl had a title but no money. William McCordle had money, but no "class." So, Sylvia and Louisa cut cards, and Sylvia won, so she married him.
Both sisters now regret how this worked out. Louisa flirts with William, and it isn't clear whether it ever went any further than that, but what is clear is that she likes the idea of somebody playing with her, coaxing her into bad behavior. Her husband, Lord Stockbridge, the very stuffy ex-Army officer, certainly isn't about to coax anybody into anything naughty.
Sylvia certainly doesn't need anybody to coax her into bad behavior, she dallies with visiting servants on a regular basis, if they're handsome enough. What Sylvia finds she wants, though, is somebody she can respect, and there's nothing much (as she sees it) to respect about her awful, vulgar, middle class husband.
I remember in the 1970s two players on the NY Yankees decided to trade wives in mid-season. Needless to say, this was not an option in the English aristocracy, especially in the 1930s.
Mrs. Wilson: Didn't you hear me? I'm the perfect servant. I have no life.
Neither group of people above stairs or below, has a monopoly on goodness, or nastiness, or self-involvement, or lust, or any other human characteristic. The servants don't really have much of a life, though. Not because the masters consciously prevent them from having one (the masters are generally oblivious to the whole question, which is in some ways even worse). It's just because of what's demanded of them by the job (or, really, the life).
One of the most delightful scenes in the movie takes place in the evening, as Ivor Novello (who was a real film and music star of that time, his music is used throughout the film) sits down to entertain people at the piano. Despite the fact that this is obviously why he was invited, all of the guests ignore his playing almost completely. A film star is nothing to them, and it seems pretty clear that they like having him there so they can make that point, to him and to each other.
However, many of the servants, entranced by the music, creep up to the doors of the drawing room to try to listen without getting caught.
Constance Trentham: He produces the Charlie Chan movies. Or does he direct them? I never know the difference.
The film is beautifully balanced, all the real unhappiness set off by some wonderful humor. For one thing, there is a theme throughout of jokes about the movie business. Morris Weissman, the American movie producer, is always on the long distance telephone, conducting his business with the studio and fighting about the casting of his latest Charlie Chan movie, much to the disdain of the aristocrats.
The second thread of humor is provided by the bitchy asides of the women of the family about Mabel, among many other topics. Mabel is the middle class wife of the Honorable Freddie Nesbitt. He is there to try to get money and/or a job from William, mostly by blackmailing him with the knowledge that William's daughter is or was pregnant, probably by Freddie himself. Freddie is awful, and everybody knows it, but he is of their class, and he knows how to dress and how to act and conduct himself, so they put up with him.
Mabel is one of the people who changes during the course of the movie (most of them don't, in fact most of them are barely affected by the murder), and it's one of the great subplots, as she realizes that her husband and most of the other people there may look down on her (even some of the servants dismiss her, because she travels without a ladies maid), but she begins to realize that she has a lot of intelligence and strength that most of them don't have.
The third, and most obvious, source of humor is the detective himself, who is a complete ass. He tries, unsuccessfully, to ingratiate himself with the aristocracy, he obviously has no idea how to solve a crime, and he is a constant source of amazement to the constable who works with him. He is probably the only completely one-dimensional character in the movie.
Only one character discovers who committed the crime(s) and why, and she never reveals this knowledge to anybody else. She thinks, quite correctly, that no purpose would be served by doing so. And, though she doesn't say so, she is aware that the murder was only the culmination of many other crimes, none of them ever punished.
Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay by Julian Fellowes, from an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban
Constance Trentham : Maggie Smith
William McCordle : Michael Gambon
Sylvia McCordle : Kristin Scott Thomas
Isobel McCordle : Camilla Rutherford
Raymond Stockbridge : Charles Dance
Louisa Stockbridge : Geraldine Somerville
Anthony Meredith : Tom Hollander
Lavinia Meredith : Natasha Wightman
Ivor Novello : Jeremy Northam
Morris Weissman : Bob Balaban
Freddie Nesbitt : James Wilby
Mabel Nesbitt : Claudie Blakley
Rupert Standish : Laurence Fox
Jeremy Blond : Trent Ford
Henry Denton : Ryan Phillippe
Kelly Macdonald : Mary Maceachran
Robert Parks : Clive Owen
Jane Wilson : Helen Mirren
Elizabeth Croft : Eileen Atkins
Elsie : Emily Watson
Mr. Jennings : Alan Bates
Mr. Probert : Derek Jacobi
George : Richard E. Grant
Arthur : Jeremy Swift
Dorothy : Sophie Thompson
Mrs. Lewis : Meg Wynn Owen
Mr. Barnes : Adrian Scarborough
Sarah : Frances Low
Renee : Joanna Maude
Bertha : Teresa Churcher
Inspector Thompson : Stephen Fry
Constable Dexter : Ron Webster