Altman in the past has been so enthralled by the spectacle of the group -- the sprawl of characters who populate his films -- he has failed to take adequate note of individuals. Considering the number of characters in Gosford Park, it's a wonder how many are so compassionately, engagingly rendered, like the housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson), desperate to escape her station, or the silent, obedient valet Probert (Derek Jacobi), who seems to want nothing more than to serve his masters. By the same token, we come to despise others -- the predatory Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby), who bullies his wife for committing the unforgivable social gaffe of being ordinary and wearing gowns of machine-made lace, and the vicious Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a viper-mean, icy elitist able to reduce her fellow man to a smoking pile of cinders with one withering stare or barbed comment.
As unrelentingly melancholy as the constant drizzle that coats the British countryside, Gosford Park documents the class system of '30s England with a sense of profound moral outrage that in every way trumps Altman's simplistic outrage over the pettiness of Hollywood in The Player.
The setting is an English country house, home to Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, the ruthless, snobbish Lady Sylvia McCordle (a role Thomas thankfully plays against her usual type of uppercrust Madonna). The McCordles are hosting a weekend shooting party for a cadre of -- mostly despised -- friends and family, including Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), who's invited by Sylvia's cousin, movie actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam).
While the privileged class sips port and plays bridge upstairs, their servants buzz about like a mound of ants in the manor's catacomb basement. Altman immediately sets the terms of their oppression -- inferior not only in status, but inferior in spirit. The local custom whereby the servants are referred to by their employers' names, for instance, is an erasure of identity completed by the servants' favorite pastime -- gossiping and discussing the lives of their masters. While their employers treat them with a patent disregard, fucking them on a whim, shoving a proffered cup of coffee to the ground, demanding silence and obedience and invisibility, the servants are consumed by catering to their masters' every need.
Though Altman's narrative "hook" in Gosford Park is an Agatha Christie-worthy Murder in the Manor in which one of the posh types winds up dead, the film only uses murder to highlight the depths of brutality, exploitation and rage underlying this supposedly ordered, mannerly world. And that sense of pent-up hate is not only an enmity between servant and master. The social occasions during which the lords and ladies dine or listen to Ivor tickling the ivories sizzle with malice and hardly concealed resentments.
Society is a misnomer in this toxic place, where Sir William treats his lapdog with more affection than his brother-in-law (Tom Hollander), who comes to him desperate for financial help, or his wife, Lady Sylvia, whom he clearly detests. There is no better indication of the brutality at work beneath white gloves and dinner table protocol than the peasant hunt that serves as the weekend's focal point, in which a mass of men overloaded with guns spray the air with bullets, and the poor, outnumbered pheasants drop from the sky like hail.
While the servants hide in the dark hallways outside the parlor, surreptitiously soaking up the tunes that emanate from the golden lair of their masters, the aristocrats pout and complain, unmoved by the songs. There is, Altman suggests, a depth of feeling and an understandable need for escape that makes the servants cherish beauty and creativity. A rich, closely observed film, Gosford Park takes note of such contradictions. It's hard to tell who is more pitiful. Transfixed by money and status or treated for so long like lesser beings, aristocrat and servant both have seen their humanity wither away.
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