Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Gosford Park: Down the Road From Downton Abbey

While the residents of Downton Abbey await the arrival of the British royal family (and the producers wait for their box office returns to come rolling in), I’ve gone back to a Julian Fellowes-penned film that inspired the televised saga of the aristocratic Crawleys and their upstairs/downstairs world. Gosford Park, a feature film from 2001, boasts a starry British cast. It’s led by Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, and Kelly Macdonald as below-the-stairs folk, as well as Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott Thomas as their social betters. Downton’s Maggie Smith is also present, stealing scenes as is her wont, as a stuffy but impoverished aristo who huffs that “there’s nothing more exhausting than breaking in a new lady’s maid.” 

It’s 1932, in that oblivious period between two World Wars. Everyone is gathered at Gosford Park because the McCordles are staging a shooting party, with the menfolk traipsing out to the fields to blast away at defenseless game birds. But many more games are afoot, involving sexual infidelities, desperate attempts to raise money, and long-simmering class resentment. Occupying a special niche are three interlopers from Hollywood. One is Ivor Novello, an actual British entertainer and matinee idol of the period, whose skill at tickling the ivories causes many hearts to flutter, both in the drawing room and in the servants’ quarters.  He’s good at hobnobbing with the wealthy, but hardly considers himself part of their world. (When someone asks how he puts up with  the snobbery of the ruling classes, he simply shrugs, “I make a living impersonating them.”)

The chap doing the asking is another Hollywood type, a hearty American named Morris Weissman, whom Novello has brought along because he’s researching his latest film.  Weissman, played by the diminutive Bob Balaban, is almost certainly Jewish, and it’s clear that his ethnicity as well as his nationality and his occupation taint him unforgivably in the eyes of his snooty hosts. (To make matters worse, both hosts and staff are appalled that he won’t eat meat.) Novello and Weissman are accompanied by an apparently Scottish valet (Ryan Phillipe) who seems to be up to no good.

In fact, someone in the household is definitely up to no good. Weissman explains that though his new film will be titled Charlie Chan in London, it’s mostly set in a stately country estate, where a shooting party ends in a murder, and everyone present becomes a suspect. Ironically, this is exactly what transpires, though the bumbling local constabulary is far less effective than Charlie Chan would be in tracking down the killer.

While playing a key role in the film, Balaban also served as one of its producers. Gosford Park came about when he and Robert Altman decided to work together. Director Altman, who’s more usually associated with All-American stories like Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, delighted in working with a British ensemble blessed with strong theatrical chops. Always experimental, he had two cameras going at once, and actors—never sure of when they’d appear on camera—were encouraged to improvise when they participated in the film’s many crowd scenes. The result is both fascinating and frustrating: there are times when so much is going on that it’s hard to follow the logic of basic plot lines. (And, dash it all, some of those well-coiffed lords and ladies do quickly start to look alike.) Still, this is an elegant treatise on class distinction. Who knew that in the very best houses the servants are expected to call each other by the names of their masters? 


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