Murder Most British
by ALEX CARNEVALE
England, 1932. War profiteer William McCordle is hosting a small hunting party at his home. Just some dead pheasant, a couple of brewskis, and 67 other English accents. It is great sport to make fun of the British, but it's a little mean-spirited as well. It's like taking a jab at your father for how old and out of it he is.
Robert Altman is always making fun of something, but unlike say, Woody Allen, he gives you a chance to take things seriously first. Some of have called Altman a naturalist, but that's because his exaggerated portrayals are so audacious that you want to believe in them as much as they believe in themselves.
All the important people have come to Gosford Park, and so too have their servants and footmen, their maids and Maid Marions. As in real life, the women actually run the place, making the beds and the meals and the babies. If you are British you might find the characters hew a little too closely to the Agatha Christie form, but to Altman's American eye, every portrayal and improvised line is a natural part of something far different than a traditional murdery mystery.
Morris Weissman is an American film director come to do research for the play-within-the play. (He's making a Charlie Chan film about an English hunting party.) The Hollywood lingo is practically contemporary to our time, not 1932, a winking joke that's all kinds of fun, especially when its embodier is Bob Balaban and he's making jokes about how different things are over there. "They all have their own servants!" he gushes. Clearly he won't be alive in 2009 to witness the American caste system, and that's all for the best.
To be fair, they are white as hell over there. You can't fully appreciate the depth of white European identity unless you grew up there, or recently watched Gosford Park. Here in America us whiteys are neatly absorbed into a secular glue, and non-whites share power, influence, and the Oval Office. In 1932 there might have been a lot less, but in England, less still.
Altman's collaborator on Gosford Park was Julian Fellowes. Considering Altman's own political alignment — he's a devout liberal, as he showed in the brilliant Garry Trudeau collaboration, Tanner '88 — it's interesting to note that Fellowes spent years penning speeches for Conservative politicians in his native country. I suppose that's fitting for a movie that essentially holds at its heart a class war that it doesn't care who wins, exactly.
Of course any film purporting to depict the state of affairs in one country makes comment on another, and in Weissman's bisexual paramour Ryan Phillippe, we have the trangressor. Arriving at the house as his lover's footman, Philippe manages to bang the lady of the house and nearly rape a fellow servant.
Once he's revealed to not be a Scottish footman, he's given over to a nicer room. Don't lie about your class, young man. You're an actor and you deserve a nice room. Phillippe looks like the head of a penis, and he's the worst actor in the film, a shame that's no shame when you're sharing screentime with Helen Mirren.
To capture the meaty idiosyncraises of every character and their place in the world warrants this excessively detailed wikipedia entry. Among the 60 or so denizens of Gosford Park, most useful for our purposes are rich ones. The wealthier you are, the less your physical self comes to matter, and the women of Gosford Park prove it. They're only in search of what's useful, and love and devotion are rather off the menu. They look something like frogs wrapped in silk and cotton.
Among a litany of pitch perfect performances is Helen Mirren practically blowing other actresses off the screen with his creeping denounements. No Country for Old Men's Kelly MacDonald shows what she can do with an actual good role for a woman as she makes a better girl detective than Emma Roberts as Nancy Drew.
If Gosford Park weren't so subdued and complex, you might think you were watching the insane fun of Clue, or the deceptive brilliance of Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game. This is mystery so subtle and suggestive that it deserves to be rewatched endlessly.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here.
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