Detecting the Divide

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Review of 'Gosford Park', director Robert Altman

In a big country mansion in 1932 a rich family and their friends gather, waited on hand and foot by an army of servants. At midnight a murder is committed. 'Gosford Park' has all the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie whodunit. But anyone expecting the usual Agatha Christie fare, with its gentlemanly upper class heroes, comic book villains and racist stereotypes, will be sorely disappointed. This is a whodunit told from the servants' point of view.

The British period setting of the film is a departure for US director Robert Altman, whose films such as Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts have all been set in the US. But Altman doesn't offer a tourist's nostalgic view of the British aristocracy. Instead he cleverly subverts the traditional whodunit scenario to expose class inequalities in the 1930s.

From the moment the film begins, the contrast between the idle rich and the servants who wait on them is in the foreground of the film. The film opens as a maid, Mary, gets soaked to the skin in a downpour, while her cosseted mistress, the Countess of Trentham, is ushered under cover to a waiting car. It is through the details of everyday life that we see the huge gulf between upstairs and downstairs, and the hundred and one ritual humiliations that the servants are put through as they see to every whim of their rich employers. So the servants are never called by their real names, but by the surnames of their employers. The Countess of Trentham (brilliantly played by Maggie Smith) refers to how she is 'breaking in' her new maid.

Robert Altman made it policy while shooting to only film the rich upstairs if there was a servant present. The rich are shown lazing around, languidly lying on sofas, waiting for their every need to be met, while the servants hover in the background ready to jump to attention. In contrast, downstairs is a hive of activity, with servants rushing about, never getting a break in the military-style operation which is involved in meeting the whims of upstairs.

'Gosford Park' represents a world which will soon be changed completely by the turmoil of the 1930s and the Second World War. The days of mansion houses staffed by a huge army of servants are numbered. This sense of class division and society in flux comes across brilliantly in the film. The ruling class is shown not only despising the servants but also each other. So the owner of Gosford Park, Sir William McCordle (played by Michael Gambon), is hated by members of the old aristocracy because he represents new money and got his title from his wife. But neither does the film idealise the world of the servants downstairs, which is shown as having a strict hierarchy, reflecting the divisions imposed from above.

In some ways the whodunit element seems almost incidental to the film. Altman said he wanted to make not so much a whodunit but rather a 'that it was done', and that the murder was a device to keep all the characters in one place. But that doesn't make the film any less compelling to watch. It has an all-star cast of British actors and, like many previous Altman films, a vast array of characters. But the acting is so good that even the most minor characters get to tell their story through looks and gestures. So one of most moving moments in the film is when the upright butler of the house drinks himself stupid because he is frightened he will be exposed for being a conscientious objector during the First World War.

If you want to be kept on the edge of your seat, guessing who did the murder, then this might not be the film for you. But as a vivid, funny and enjoyable portrayal of class inequalities and injustices, 'Gosford Park' is an excellent film.