BY JONAS BLANK
Combine Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and you don’t exactly get a nail-biter.
Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) is throwing a pheasant shooting party for his boring, rich friends at his English country mansion in 1932. These boring, listless rich people sit around gossiping about and with other boring, rich people, occasionally taking breaks for meals and the hunting expedition, at which they do the same. Their servants toil in the nether parts of the house, slaving away to be sure their masters get their breakfasts at precisely 8:53 a.m., have the right shirts to wear, and are never thirsty, hungry or uncomfortable. The servants also spend most of their time gossiping about the rich, listless, boring people.
But then – an actual event occurs! In the midst of all the eating, drinking and gossiping, McCordle gets stabbed. A brief whodunit ensues, punctuated by everybody’s utter indifference to the man’s death. The culprits are discovered, but nothing happens to them, and in the end, nobody really gives a damn.
That’s writer/director Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, in a nutshell. And if that description doesn’t sound appealing, the film likely won’t be, either.
Stories about the mundane inanities of the life of the wealthy have a long, rich history – the critical apex of which was reached by Jane Austen, who somehow made “novels of manners” into adorable love stories and compelling commentary on the gender politics and lifestyle of the times in which she lived.
The majority of Gosford Park, with all its laborious but lovingly rendered scenes of tedious conversation, seems to try and update the Austen concept, offering an honest portrayal of the mores and machinations of British aristocrats living between the World Wars. Rarely if ever condescending to modern linguistic or comedic conceits, its subjects are convincing reproductions, right down to the men’s anxieties about their respective war records and the Brits’ stuffy reaction to flamboyant Hollywood director Morris Weissman (a vegetarian, by God!) and his puckish young “Scottish” servant Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe, proving that AntiTrust and Cruel Intentions were cruel underestimations of his actual talent). The dialogue, even if most of it is pithy complaining and gossip, is sharp and witty, especially that of Constance, Countess of Trentham, played by Maggie Smith, who manages to turn the delightfully dour old crone into one of the film’s most likable characters.
Still, the problem with Altman’s execution is twofold. First, Austen and some of her contemporaries made novels of manners successful via exquisitely detailed characters. Altman is hardly Austen, and working with a medium that is unforgiving to character development. What we’re left with, then, are a few characters, like head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson) and Constance, who propel the film’s emotional core, getting lost amid a sea of flat, similarly-named folks that make it nearly impossible to keep track of who said and did what. The already longish film (137 minutes) doesn’t have time to develop its enormous cast of characters, and thus, leaves most of them as mindless cardboard cutouts.
Second, and more problematic, is Altman’s anemic Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, which (other than foreshadowing shots of the poison bottles all over the place) doesn’t begin in earnest till over halfway through the film. The characters’ indifferent reactions to McCordle’s death could have been interesting – most of them, clearly, were after his money and patronage and not his company – but there has been too little character development up to that point to make the characters’ lack of sympathy convincing. Bumbling Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) adds a little levity to the proceedings, but otherwise the plot’s final resolution falls totally flat. It’s obvious from the outset who at least one of the killers is, and the mere fact of the other one takes one too many coincidences to be believed.
The most successful element of Gosford Park is its portrayal of the lives of the servants and their interaction with their masters. When Elsie unwittingly and reveals her affair with Sir William when she defends him during an argument with Lady McCordle, we see a sharp comment on the confusion of love and sex as applied to a master-servant relationship. The curious fact about many of the servants is that they do care so much about their masters and their work, as if their lives only matter if their sullen, ungrateful charges’ happiness does. They have a sort of resigned doggedness about them, a near-heroic level of dedication that suggests that there are shards of hope and achievement in their strictly regimented, vicariously-lived lives. Such is the case with their petty rebellion against Denton, who turns out to be an actor “playing” a servant in an upcoming film trying to get into the role. Their disdain for him is telling, not so much because he tricked them, but because, it seems, he dared try and imitate their craft. In the end, the servants, whose faults and feelings aren’t shrouded in social conceit, are the only “real” people in the story, and as such, the easiest to identify and keep track of.
Altman may have partially succeeded in filming a modern novel of manners, and his cast deserves credit for giving what animation it can to their underdeveloped characters. But a talented cast and capable camera work do not a worthy period piece make, and the end result is a shortened sort of PBS special that still feels overlong. Rent “Pride and Prejudice” and “Endless Night” instead.