Saturday, January 15, 2005

Gosford Park (DVD)

(Dir Robert Altman, with Kelly McDonald, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Fry, Ryan Phillipe, Michael Gambon...)

I really have no idea what inspired me to pick this one off the shelf, it was just sitting there and I grabbed it with no idea what the storyline might be, who was in it or even that Altman was the director. As it started, I had not even read the cover blurb, because the writing was too small, so I was totally reliant upon the film telling its own story. This is, of course, what a film should be able to do but how often do we see a movie with no conception as to what it is about?

So, it took a while for all the characters to solidify - there was a house party in a classic British Big House set in 1932, with the ladies leaving the gents after dinner, shooting in the morning and everyone trundling around in Rolls Royces. We also see all the servants and how their pecking order and, indeed, their very name, reflects that of their employer. So the modest Mary Maceachran (McDonald) had to take precedence over more pushy servants because Lady Constance Trentham outranked the other visitors.

For the first hour or so of the movie, there is very little plot development - rather the relationships, characterisations and tensions between characters are being made clear. Henry Denton (Phillipe), servant of the American film maker tries it on unsuccessfully with Mary and then more successfully with the Lady of the household. Its possible he was also willing to provide sexual favours for his boss. Lady Constance is financially dependent upon Sir William, the master of the house, as is one of the young fellows floating about. He is a perrenial womaniser, is having a thing with Elsie the Housemaid and has a pretty sordid sexual past, having fathered multiple children who he then cast into an orphanage. And so on. Care is taken to show everyone is in their particular place - I don't know how often various of the servants were told that they "shouldn't be here" i.e. in places visible to the gentry. A nice touch was provided when the guests are all listening to some famous singer quite literally singing for his supper: all the various servants are listening in behind the scenes, probably more avidly than the guests.

But after an hour, things start to crack open. When his wife is critical of Sir William at dinner, Elsie springs to his defence, making it clear to everyone that something unwholesome is going on. Then Henry Denton turns out not to be who he claimed to be. Most importantly, Sir William is stabbed, prompting the entry of Stephen Fry as the bumbling Police Inspector. I was wondering why he was such an obviously bad policeman, but the reason became clear: the truth of who murdered Sir William will never be officially known. Certainly there was no shortage of potential murderers and, indeed, two people had a go at killing him.

Throughout, the key character is Mary. She learns things from the servants and passes it to her employer and in turn learns things from her employer. As a result, she is able to put two and two together and so work out not just who the two "killers" were, why they did and give them both a form of absolution. Its funny, as I was watching her, I was trying to work out who the actress playing her was - the name Kelly McDonald meant nothing to me. It turns out I've seen her in two other roles (Elizabeth and Trainspotting - in which she plays the schoolgirl who seduced Renton).

As the film unfolded, there was a humourous little sideshow - the American film maker (Weissman) was on the phone to his people in California about the details of his latest film, featuring a murder in a Big House, where one of the valets (NOT the butler) did it. So, he is raving on about the details of this murder, oblivious to the fact that there is a real life one surrounding him.


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