If you had to guess, what would you say would be likely to be Robert Altman’s view of the British upper classes between the wars? Not very hard to guess, is it? But Mr Altman seems nonetheless to think it worth his while to sketch it for us in detail and for well over two hours in his new film, Gosford Park. You might have guessed that there wouldn’t be a toff among them that you wouldn’t cross the street to avoid. And do you suppose that maybe their hoity-toity manners might be hiding secrets? Discreditable secrets? Hm, possibly. In fact, my guess is that it is quite likely that there would be little else but secrets. And, of course, hoity-toity manners to cover them up. It would probably be fair to say that the portrait that would emerge would be of a rotten and corrupt society headed for the dustbin of history. And — here’s a brilliant idea — why not have a rollicking, Altmanian glimpse of all that is going on down in the servants’ hall juxtaposed with their phony and corrupt masters above-stairs, just to show us by contrast the decency and humanity and authenticity of proletarian society?
Is this beginning to sound just the tiniest bit familiar? But then the popular culture is nothing if not repetitive. For decades Hollywood lived by the philosophy that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. Savage red men bit the dust in their thousands for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, so that anyone who ventured into a Western could be sure of what he would see. Why did it take people so long to get bored knowing that every Indian would be nothing but an Aunt Sally for soldiers’ or settlers’ bullets? I don’t know, but eventually they did get bored — and Hollywood promptly flip-flopped. For the last thirty-five years, you could be equally certain going into a movie that any cinematic redskins would invariably be the good guys: decent, honorable and, as sure as shooting, victimized by the white man.
And we are still not bored with it. Maybe in another 30 years we will be. In the same way, I reckon that it has been at least 40 years since an aristocrat of the silver screen has been anything but a thorough rotter and a cad. You have only to call a character Lord something- or-other and your audience knows immediately what to think of him. Why don’t we get bored with this? Once again, it is a mystery. But one possible explanation is that we need the myth of the wicked upper classes to confirm us in our taste for vulgarity and sloppiness. If we thought that manners and what they used to call “breeding” were anything but a cover for the basest kind of behavior, we might have to cultivate them ourselves once again instead of letting it all hang out.
At any rate, Robert Altman is too old to change now, and the actual story never mattered that much to him anyway. The corrupt aristocrats are taken for granted not only because they are the fashion but because they don’t essentially interest him. Not surprising when you consider the simplicity of their make-up in his view. What does interest him is the creative processes involved in making several stories unfold before us simultaneously and then come together in a single dénouement — or perhaps it should be a nouement, since it is more like a tying up than an untying. The main story in Gosford Park concerns Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his young wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristen Scott Thomas), who hates him. From gossip in the servants’ hall we learn that Sir William made his fortune manufacturing munitions during the First World War. He also slept with a number of his young female employees, getting more than one of them “in trouble.” When that happened he told them he had a good home picked out for the babies but then dumped them in an orphanage.
At a shooting party (see The Shooting Party for precedents) at his stately home one weekend in 1932, we are introduced to his guests: Lord Stockdale (Charles Dance) and his wife, Lady Stockdale (Geraldine Somerville), who is Lady Sylvia’s sister and seems to hate her husband — though, oddly, not Sir William — just as much; Lady Sylvia’s Aunt Constance, the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), who lives off an allowance from him and various other impecunious relations and hangers-on who want help or a job, including two young men (one married) in pursuit of his slutty daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford); and Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), the film-star and song writer, who arrives with a Hollywood chum and producer of Charlie Chan movies, Maurice Weissman (Bob Balaban).
None of these people, with the possible exception of Lady Constance, is a fully-realized character. They’re only there to be hated after all. Among the servants, however, it is a different story. Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) the housekeeper and Mrs Croft (Eileen Atkins) the head cook, are said to hate each other, but they turn out to be sisters (hope I’m not giving too much away), Jennings the butler (Alan Bates) reigns supreme in the servants’ hall, but is a secret drinker (like so many butlers). In addition there are Sir William’s manservant Probert (Derek Jacobi), Lady Constance’s new Scottish maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald) who forms a friendship with Elsie (Emily Watson) the pert housemaid who is having an affair with Sir William, and Weissman’s enigmatical manservant, Harry Denton (Ryan Philippe) — about whom there is “something funny,” as all the servants seem to agree.
Lord Stockdale’s manservant, Robert Parkes (Clive Owen) also has a certain mystery about him, especially after he reveals that he was raised in an orphanage. Enough said? The central event of the film happens when Lady Silvia is being typically nasty about her husband at dinner and Elsie the maid forgets herself and speaks up on his behalf. It is a cataclysmic event and completely unprecedented that a servant should speak without being spoken to. And at dinner! Yet no one says a word. Elsie runs from the room and it is taken for granted that she will pack her things and leave in the morning. Meanwhile, Sir William retires to his study to potter about with his guns. There follows a murder and then Altman takes great delight in playing off the traditional country house murder when he introduces the local police inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) who is comically inept as an investigator and who is also a snob and a social climber. Naturally he is outshone as a crime detector by his working class sidekick, Constable Dexter (Ron Webster).
Naturally, too, the murder is not meant to be so much a mystery to us. We do not make the mistake of those foolish aristocrats in overlooking the servants and are as glad as most of them to see Sir William get what’s coming to him. The key line in the film comes when Inspector Thompson is asked if he intends to interview any of the servants and replies “I’m not interested in the servants — only those with a real connection to the dead man.” Of course, the servants are the only ones with any real connection to him, but the social conventions of the time do not permit the foolish inspector to realize the fact. If this seems to you a striking or original insight, or likely to have been actually true of the aristocrats of the period, you will probably like this movie more than I did.
Actually, the best thing about it comes when Ivor Novello plays the piano and sings “That Lovely Land of Might-Have-Been” — an actual Ivor Novello song and very much of its period. The servants listen in at the doors and windows, delighted, while the toffs ignore the song or regard it as a bore. When perfunctory applause breaks out, Lady Constance says “Don’t do that. It will only encourage him to go on all night.” Of course the lovely land of Might-Have-Been is where the servants are more used to living than their masters, but the sense of detachment from reality helps Altman to present in another form, if not yet a persuasive one, his quasi-Marxist understanding of the upper classes and their doomed society. If you like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.