"Illuminating Class Distinctions"
In Robert Altman’s GOSFORD PARK, a mean-spirited, aristocratic patriarch is murdered during a shooting party set in November 1932 at a country estate in England. A bit overlong, but containing brilliant acting and assured direction, GOSFORD PARK presents a mixed, mild humanist worldview in a story about human foibles and human compassion.
In one of his writings, Karl Marx praised an aristocratic writer who attacked capitalism and the capitalist bourgeois, because the writer demonstrated what the supposed evils of capitalism are. Of course, in that same writing, Marx also criticizes the feudalistic system that the aristocrat was defending. Marx’s point was that it took someone from outside of capitalism, like the feudalist or the communist, to appreciate the inherent moral problems in capitalism. Marx forgot to note, however, that the clear-eyed Christian, who has no illusions about the sinfulness of the human race, also is able to know the moral problems inherent in feudalism or capitalism. The clear-eyed Christian also knows, however, the problems inherent in a socialistic and communistic system as well, something of which a fanatical Marxist like Karl is not aware. The clear-eyed Christian is also in a better position to judge himself, because he relies on God’s standards of judgment, not his own.
In his new movie, GOSFORD PARK, renowned director Robert Altman (MASH, NASHVILLE and THE PLAYER) brings together some aristocrats, their servants, the less wealthy relatives of the aristocrats who are struggling to survive in the capitalist world, a couple of actors, and a Hollywood producer, the epitome of the bourgeois capitalist. Each of the members of these classes has his or her subtle insights about the members of the other classes. These insights provide much enlightenment about the desires and foibles of the human race.
The movie is set during November 1932 in England. Gosford Park is the magnificent country estate to which Sir William McCordle and his younger wife, Lady Sylvia, gather relatives and friends for a shooting party. They have invited an eclectic group, including a countess, a World War I hero, a British matinee idol, an American movie producer who makes Charlie Chan mysteries in Hollywood, and Lady Sylvia’s two sisters, one of whom is married to a man who wants Sir William to finance an entrepreneurial project of his. The guests assemble in the gilded drawing rooms above, and their personal maids and valets swell the ranks of the house servants in the kitchens and corridors below-stairs.
As the weekend progresses, it becomes clear that several of these people have a great dislike for Sir William, including a motive for murdering him. Bottles of poison lurk in the crooks and nannies of the house. Then, a kitchen butcher knife shows up missing. Sir William finally turns up dead, with the knife sticking in him. An investigation shows, however, that he died of poison before this blow was struck. The head inspector is clueless, his junior officer is somewhat more competent, but it takes Mary, the maid of the Countess of Trentham, Lady Sylvia’s aunt, to figure out whodunit.
GOSFORD PARK is a bit overlong. It is also filled with too many characters, which means that talented actors like Alan Bates (who plays the head butler) and Derek Jacobi (who plays Sir William’s valet) are not used to their full effect. That said, the acting is brilliant and Altman’s direction is assured. The standouts in the cast are Kelly MacDonald as Mary; Kristin Scott Thomas as Sylvia; Maggie Smith as the Countess; Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper with a secret vital to the case; Emily Watson as Elsie the world-weary, caustic head housemaid; Clive Owen as Mary’s new friend Robert Parks, the valet to the World War I hero; Michael Gambon as the vile Sir William; and, Jeremy Northam as the actor Ivor Novello. Altman developed this story in collaboration with Bob Balaban, who also plays Morris Weissman the Hollywood movie producer, and with Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay.
Being a child of the rebellious, godless 1960s, Altman has infused GOSFORD PARK with his humanist worldview, tinged with a mild Marxist outlook. Thus, several of the servants come off the best in the movie, especially Mary, a compassionate, intelligent soul who figures out the human dynamics that led to the murder (or is it two murders?) Altman’s movie is not hamfisted propaganda, however. His humanism has mellowed a bit here, and, as he puts it in the movie’s production notes, “As we come to understand these men and women, we see them with an increasingly clear-eyed humanity that bridges age, class and sex.” In that respect, GOSFORD PARK has several insightful, emotional moments that do not clash completely with a Christian worldview. There is, however, some strong foul language and sexual content that add to the movie’s overall humanist worldview. Still, in the end, it is Mary’s compassionate, thoughtful, forgiving spirit that ultimately transcends all the foibles and human sin on display at Gosford Park.
(H, Co, Ro, B, LLL, V, SS, N, A, D, M) Humanist worldview with a mild Marxist attitude toward the aristocracy & the capitalist bourgeois, combined with some Romantic elements & mild moral ones; 22 obscenities including a few “f” words & 7 mostly mild profanities; murder, man stabbed from behind, man accidentally cuts hand, implied poisoning, people shoot birds, mild hunting accident, & man knocks cup out of servant’s hand; briefly depicted fornication, implied fornication & implied adultery; obscured upper female nudity when women servant lays around in her nightgown in female servants’ quarters; alcohol use; smoking; and, relatives live off wealthy aristocratic patriarch’s fortune.
In GOSFORD PARK, Sir William McCordle and his younger wife, Lady Sylvia, gather relatives and friends for a shooting party. They have invited an eclectic group. The guests assemble in the gilded drawing rooms above, and their personal maids and valets swell the ranks of the servants in the kitchens and corridors. As the weekend progresses, it becomes clear that several of these people dislike Sir William and have a motive for murdering him. Sir William turns up dead, with a knife sticking in him. An investigation shows, however, that he died of poison before this blow was struck. The head inspector is clueless, his junior officer is more competent, but it takes Mary, the demure maid of the Countess of Trentham, to figure out whodunit.
Being a child of the rebellious 1960s, Altman has infused GOSFORD PARK with his humanist worldview, tinged with mild Marxism. Altman’s movie is not hamfisted propaganda, however, although there is some strong foul language and sexual content that add to the movie’s overall humanist worldview. Still, in the end, it is Mary’s compassionate, thoughtful, forgiving spirit that ultimately transcends all the foibles and human sin on display at Gosford Park.