On Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2002)

The byzantine rituals of the British class system may seem like a strange topic for the Kansas City-born Robert Altman, a high-risk gambler with an antiauthoritarian streak 10 miles long. But as a staunch outsider to the mainstream, he spent his career – in films as diverse as M*A*S*H, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts, The Player – dissecting hierarchies, and what could be more hierarchical than British society? The society on display in his 2001 film Gosford Park is presented with such fetishistic detail it becomes obvious these meticulously observed rituals were designed to raise the bar for entry. “Upstairs” was built to be impenetrable. Poet John Betjeman lampooned this in his poem “How to Get On In Society“, one verse of which reads:

Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Novelist Nancy Mitford gleefully exposed the secrets of her class in her 1956 book Noblesse Oblige, where she observed, “An aristocracy in a republic is like a chicken whose head has been cut off: it may run about in a lively way, but in fact it is dead.” Her pal Evelyn Waugh, also a documenter of the End Days of the British aristocracy, contributed an “open letter” to Noblesse Oblige, including this passage: “There are subjects too intimate for print. Surely class is one? The vast and elaborate structure grew up almost in secret. Now it shows alarming signs of dilapidation. Is this the moment to throw it open to the heavy-footed public? Yes, I think it is.”

Robert Altman loved throwing open the doors of closed worlds “to the heavy-footed public” and Gosford Park opens doors within doors within doors. The film takes place in December 1932, just one month before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Nobody in the film, upstairs people or down, has any idea their interconnected life is headed for the cataclysm. In Altman’s hands, English murder-mystery is a portrait of a world about to vanish from the face of the earth. In less than a decade, that grand old house will probably be commandeered by the military for troop barracks and hospitals.

Longtime friends Bob Balaban and Robert Altman had always discussed working together, and when Altman mentioned how much he wanted to do a murder-mystery Balaban saw the possibilities. Altman loved riffing on familiar genres. As Robert Holker observed in his book A Cinema of Loneliness, Altman needed “[Hollywood’s] conventions as material to dismantle and reconsider.” In their initial discussions, Altman made it clear he was more interested in the “downstairs people,” the black-clad servants who normally float by in the background in such films. What if the aristocrats were seen primarily through the servants’ eyes?

This was the spark that lit the flame. They reached out to Julian Fellowes, an actor and television writer, who knew this world first-hand, to write the script (which would win the Oscar). Altman and Balaban described the film as “Ten Little Indians meets Rules of the Game.” The connection to Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece is instructive. Gosford Park dissects the rigid class system of aristocratic England in the same way Rules of the Game goes after the decadence of aristocratic France. In both films, you can see the cracks in the facade of an entire society. Altman achieves this initially by taking us into the house via the servants’ quarters not the front door, and throughout he never shows an “upstairs” person without a “downstairs” person present.

In a confusing collage (made even more confusing since the servants are referred to by their masters’ and mistress’ names), we meet all the characters in the first 20 minutes of the film. Upstairs, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) and William McCordle (Michael Gambon) greet their guests. Their sulky daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) is embroiled in an increasingly fraught argument with the married Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby). We only learn what this argument is about close to the end of the film, and even then it’s gone so quickly you might miss it. Freddie’s dowdy wife Mabel (Claudie Blakley) suffers the scorn of the other guests for being so publicly humiliated by her husband (and also she doesn’t travel with a maid). Sylvia has two married sisters, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), in the midst of some sort of affair with William, and Lavinia (Natasha Wightman), whose desperate husband Anthony (Tom Hollander) makes a nuisance of himself asking William for money. The great Maggie Smith plays Sylvia’s persnickety Aunt Constance, terrified that William will cut off her allowance. Over-reliance on “the help” is apparent in one of the earliest scenes where Constance asks her brand new ladies’ maid Mary (Kelly McDonnell) to twist the cap off the Thermos bottle for her.

Downstairs buzzes with its own equally fraught cast of characters. There’s the stern Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), head of the household, who says at one point, “I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.” Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) is the proprietary head of the kitchen, in a bitter struggle with Mrs. Wilson for dominance. This relationship ends up being the key that unlocks the most secret door of the film,. Alan Bates plays Jennings, the stern proper butler, and Richard Grant, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Swift and Adrian Scarborough play footmen and servants. Clive Owen is Robert Parks, a servant for one of the visiting guests, whose mysteriously independent spirit is cause for much gossip. Emily Watson plays Elsie, the head maid, who takes newbie Mary under her generous wing (and, as a bonus to us, explains how the household works). There’s Bertha (Teresa Churcher), a kitchen maid who appears to be the only person on the premises enjoying an active lusty sex life, and maid Dorothy (Sophie Thompson), in a state of unrequited love for Mr. Jennings.

To remind us of the insularity of this world, Altman gives us four outsiders. The aforementioned Mary is the naive newcomer who turns into an amateur Girl Detective, the only one who discovers the truth of what happened and why. Real-life movie star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) steps into this fictional story, visiting his cousin Sylvia, his Hollywood “career” condescendingly tolerated by his relatives. Novello has brought with him Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and Weissman’s “servant” (i.e. paid-lover and undercover actor) Henry Denton (Ryan Philippe), who affects a Scottish accent, and wears a black derby like a figure from Magritte.

The murder of William McCordle happens at almost exactly the midpoint. Altman does not bury the lede. Early on, long before the murder, there’s a show-stopping zoom in to a cluster of bottles marked, conspicuously, “Poison”. Later, Bertha stands over a row of carving knives, remarking that one is missing. There’s another zoom in to a bottle of poison, with a voice saying, off-camera, “Everyone’s got something to hide.” The film is so filled with red herrings it’s a wonder the characters don’t trip over them. As the film progresses, it becomes clear Gosford Park is not a “whodunit” at all. Altman joked in a 2001 interview at the AFI that it’s more of a “who-cares-who-did-it”.

What could have been an exercise in style is instead a richly textured, funny, and occasionally heartbreaking film about the human condition. There isn’t just one secret onscreen. The air rustles with the ghostly whispers of thwarted hopes, disappointments, dead dreams. Altman’s films are filled with people withholding information and yet who constantly give themselves away. A perfect example is the nightclub scene in Nashville when Keith Carradine sings “I’m Easy,” and multiple women in the audience assume he’s singing about them, including Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), but she’s the only one who’s right. Gosford Park is one of those films that reveals more and more depths with repeat viewings.

Altman gave only one direction to the huge cast of Gosford Park: “All of you are the lead. Whenever you’re on the screen, your story is the main story.” Some of the cast members were living legends, others had only a couple of credits to their name. It’s not every director who could convince the illustrious Derek Jacobi to take such a small role, but as Corey Fischer (who appeared in M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller) observed, Altman wanted an “entourage of actors who were not playing primary characters who would enliven those edges and give the final work a special feel that he became known for.” Altman was always more interested in the edges than the bullseye.

This informed his signature camera movements, the zoom, and the slow drifting pan. Closeups are rare in his films. The cinematographer for Gosford Park was Andrew Dunn (in his first collaboration with Altman; they would pair up again for The Company), and in the film the camera floats through those gorgeous rooms, with seemingly no purpose, rarely landing. When the camera zooms in on something, the voices continue above and around the image, disembodied from the camera’s actions. Robert Holker observed in his book that Altman’s zoom creates a “subjective sense of vagueness and disorientation,” and makes any given environment “a place of inquiry rather than accepting it as a preexistent whole.” Fellowes observed that “[Altman] creates this illusion in the mind of the spectator that they are directing the camera. It becomes an autonomous being that is moving around the room. Because you are the viewer, you take responsibility for the image.”

Because this is a film with two completely separate worlds, coursing along in parallel lines with only occasional intersections, the stylistic differences between upstairs and downstairs are acute. The upstairs was filmed in an actual country estate, and the colors are cool and elegant, pale greens and pinks, ivories, with lots of space for people to wander. The servants’ areas (created with meticulous detail on a sound stage by production designer Stephen Altman), are dark and deep, punctuated by shafts of light from the outside (these images are straight from a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, a Caravaggio). The shadows are pitch-black, threatening to engulf entire rooms. Some of the “downstairs” sequences – servants settling down to their dinner seen through mottled panes of glass, Clive Owen lounging on his bed smoking, surrounded by dark shadows – are among the most beautiful and painterly shots in Altman’s entire career.

Altman spent a lifetime in resistance to the establishment, and despised snobbery of all kinds. The snobbery on display in Gosford Park is extreme (watch for Lady Sylvia’s expression when Weissman asks her where the telephone is, or Aunt Constance’s reactions to … everything). However, the upstairs people in Gosford Park are not monsters. In many ways they are more trapped than the downstairs people. In their rejection of modernity, their disinterest in movies and current music, they wed themselves to the past, to irrelevance. When Ivor Novello entertains the guests at the piano with contemporary songs (the real-life Novello was also a composer), the reactions range from smiling tolerance to outright scorn. But the servants, drawn to the music, drift upstairs, loll on the dark staircases, huddle in nearby rooms, in a reverie of rapt listening. They are the future. Elsie, smoking cigarettes and flipping through movie magazines, staunchly walking away from her job into the unknown, is the future.

Gosford Park was critically acclaimed upon its release, and a hit with audiences. The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Art Decoration and Best Costumes. Altman received a nomination for Best Director, and Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith were both nominated in the Best Supporting category. Only Julian Fellowes won for his Script. But the film’s stature, if anything, has risen in the intervening years. Stephen Holden, in his review for the New York Times, states the case plainly, “What makes the achievement of Gosford Park all the more remarkable is that Mr. Altman is 76. If the movie’s cool assessment of the human condition implies the dispassionate overview of a man who has seen it all, the energy that crackles from the screen suggests the clear-sighted joie de vivre of an artist still deeply engaged in the world.”

Robert Altman has almost no heirs, although Paul Thomas Anderson (hand-picked by Altman to take over Prairie Home Companion should he become too ill to continue) is in that rare ballpark. Altman could not be classified as an optimist, or even a “humanist.” He knew people were selfish and often cruel, and he did not shy away from that in his films. (Just ask poor “Hot Lips” in M*A*S*H.) But he was a curious man, and curious about people, who they were, why they did what they did. He always said he wanted to see things he hadn’t seen before. He wanted to discover it along the way. Kenneth Branagh, who worked with Altman in 1998’s The Gingerbread Man observed, “He was not a man who talked much about the first act or third act or the story-arc stuff. He didn’t want knowable, tangible coherence.”

Who murdered William McCordle is not exactly irrelevant, it’s just that it’s not the point. What is the point is the tender and yet electric possibilities in Mary and Robert’s connection. What is the point is the coiled intensity of Mrs. Wilson folding napkins, vibrating with bottled-up pain, or the two maids dancing together as Ivor Novello plays an uptempo song in the next room. What is the point is Elsie’s proud indomitable walk out of the house, head held high. She’s going to be fine.

Robert Altman once said, “The greatest films are the ones that leave you not able to explain, but you know that you have experienced something special. I’ve always had this feeling that the perfect response to a film or a piece of work of mine would be if someone got up and said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but it’s right.’ That’s the feeling you want – ‘That’s right’ – and it comes from four or five layers down; it comes from the inside rather than the outside.”

The people in Gosford Park are obsessed with and devoted to the “outside” of things, the forms of politeness, the placement of silverware, the proper pouring of tea. And yet the film itself comes beautifully from the inside.

This essay is included in the Gosford Park Blu-Ray, recently released by Arrow Films.

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4 Responses to On Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2002)

  1. Luis Guillermo Jimenez says:

    Love this. Congratulations.

  2. Mike Kilgannon says:

    I love, love, love this film – and yes it bears repeated viewing.

    Wanna know something weird? You seem to keep hitting on films that make me miss my Mum – ones that I saw late on Channel 4 with her years ago. I saw Gosford Park at the pictures but loed it so much I made sure we saw it together when it came on the telly a couple of years later. Also – Witness. I saw that with her when I was probably far too young to really ‘get’ what a cracklingly deeply sexy film it is – but I knew I was watching something really special and it remains a firm favourite.

    I love your writing Sheila. You really convey your enthusiasm – you make me want to go to the cinema/pick up a book/grab a pen!

    Best wishes,


    • sheila says:

      Witness!! I love that you connect these films with your mother – these are very powerful connections.

      Gosford Park is such a rich subject – honestly I think the first couple of times as much as I loved it it washed over/through me – and then each time I re-watched, I’d see more … and more … I am still discovering new things.

      Thanks so much for reading/commenting and thanks for the kind words.

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