A Film by Robert Altman
The new film from Robert Altman - who sets the standard as America's premiere auteur film-maker - is another distinguished highlight in his career. While not all of his films - including this one - scale the heights of what he has sometimes been able to accomplish, they are never dull and always take us to see places and meet people that are worth the time and effort.
In this case, the place is one of the last relics of the English Empire and the way of life it engendered, in 1932, in the lull between the World Wars and just at the beginning of the world-wide depression. The people are the family, guests and servants who inhabit Gosford Park, a lavish "country house" that is the seat of Sir William McCordle, a despotic paterfamilias of the old school.
Altman is nothing if not a master story-teller, but his talent lies not in spinning captivating plots, but in creating resonant depictions of individuals and situations. It is through the generation of revealing moments that Altman seeks to present some of the recognizable humanity of his characters, wake up the audience with a sense of "I know how that feels."
In an interview done during the filming, Altman described part of his method of guiding the process this way:"...I'm really kind of waiting or hoping for a mistake....Every one of those things that you would take out as a highpoint of any film of mine came as something that was not scripted, not planned, and certainly not 'directed' by me. It was something that occurred.. and we said, 'Wow, look at that! That's what I want to keep.' because I think that's where ...you hit that truth button on the audience."
It is this relaxed style, coupled with the intense and dedicated search for those "moments of truth" that makes Altman so popular with actors. He gives them room to inhabit the characters fully, and trusts them to breathe life into the words and actions. And those who are up to the mark take the bit in their teeth and run.
So this film, that features the cream of British acting talent, is a wonder of both striking and poignant characterization. There are literally dozens of characters, and almost every one adds something to the story. One scullery maid, for instance, has only a single line of dialogue - but that one line speaks volumes about the condition, education, and vulnerability of the young girls brought into "service" in the Great Houses of England.
Altman does a lot of his work in asides - using overlapping dialogue, camera movement, focus, placement and framing to direct or disperse audience attention, while some half-heard remark or some little piece of business seen in the background emerges as the true focus of the scene. It's another part of his attempt to create a realistic context for the action. As in real life - and unlike the typical movie conventions - what is front and center is not necessarily what is most important, most revealing, most moving.
So, such illustrious eminences as Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Derek Jacobi disappear into their characters with powerful effect. And younger stars such as Emily Watson, Jeremy Northam, Richard E. Grant, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Clive Owen, whether they get a lot of screen-time or just a few scenes, manage to communicate essential details about their characters that make their circumstances and feelings important.
As in most Altman films, the line of plot is difficult to follow. But if you are willing to abandon reliance on the commonplace of linear narrative and simply open yourself to the experience as Altman presents it, there is much to appreciate here. From Gambon's ruthlessly narcissistic patriarch, manipulating and belittling all around him, to Watson's tender but tough rebel-in-a-maid's-apron, to Mirren's stunning evocation of love, betrayal and loss against the background of the strangling conventions of "propriety," there are many details of emotional power that "hit the truth button."
There are many smaller moments as well, farther removed from the central line of the plot, but equally important to those who are "living" them. The unraveling of the relationship between the Nesbitts (James Wilby and Claudie Blakely) - he a faded scion of a noble house, she the formerly wealthy daughter of a manufacturing parvenu - is authentically painful to watch.
In the confusion and passivity of the family's daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), seduced and abandoned, who finds herself unfeelingly manipulated, no more than a pawn and plaything to the men who rule her world, the sense of someone caught and about to be crushed "beneath the wheel" of an inexorable social structure is clearly communicated.
Yet there is also a great deal of humor. The servants dance in the unlighted hall or loll dreamily on the servants' stairs outside the drawing-room doors as Matinee Idol Ivor Novello (Northam) plays and sings inside. The American movie producer (Bob Balaban), on his first shooting outing with the English Gentlefolk, anxiously inquires of his companions whether "pheasants ever attack." Arthur, the Second Footman (Jeremy Swift), observing a spot on a spoon at the immaculately set table, gives it a quick "spit shine," that conveys his underlying contempt for the conventions by which he lives.
The set, costumes and settings are wonderful. In the style of some of the Merchant and Ivory films - to which Gosford Park certainly refers, both ironically and respectfully - The Grand Style of the English Country Aristocracy is beautifully evoked. If somewhat less lavish than the most sumptuous of the recreations, Altman's version reflects both a greater concern with character and a more critical view of the "luxury" with which the wealthy sought to surround themselves - both its limitations to them, and its costs to others.
Cinematographer Andrew Dunn uses the camera to great effect to present a visual sub-text to the action. Tight shots, often with a moving camera, from low angles give a sense of the enforced intimacy and spareness of the servants' lives, their sotto-voce exchanges. Wide panoramas that span the Drawing Room, the Drive or the Grounds, where characters move in and out of the static frames, communicate some of the arrogant sense of entitlement that envelops the Upper Class.
Through it all, Altman weaves his signature use of overlapping, disjointed dialogue, where snatches of various conversations intersect to reflect the simultaneity of many various emotions, motives and ideas that exists in actual life. Made much easier by the perfection of the wireless microphone which allowed Altman and the sound crew to record each actor on a separate track and intermix the dialogue to their liking, the technique is developed in this film to a new level of effectiveness.
With a cast like this, and a director like Altman who knows how to give actors enough room to create wonderful moments, whether comedic or dramatic, it is not surprising that Gosford Park succeeds so well. with a richness of both visual and literary content, it is a film that will certainly reward repeated viewing.
It is not the pinnacle of Altman's work, but that is merely a comment on how high a standard he has set himself. It is a wonderful piece of film-making, that assures us that his capable touch is still developing, his sensitivity awake and growing, his wit lively, and that there may well be many fine films yet to come from this acknowledged master of the medium.
That's my take on it. What's yours?