Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Seventeen

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#17 — Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001)
Of course, there’s no shortage of admirable traits in Robert Altman’s finest films, but one of the clearest is the way they are rooted in the eras in which they were made. M*A*S*H takes place during the Korean War, but it is clearly about Vietnam, the conflict raging at the time of its release. Both The Player and Short Cuts get much of their potency from exposing the festering wounds left over from the selfishness of the trademark superficiality of the eighties. Prescient as it is, Nashville belongs to the disillusionment of a country still reeling from Watergate, and being a period piece doesn’t prevent McCabe and Mrs. Miller from seeming like one of many thesis statements about the revolutionary, paradoxically freeing cynicism of seventies cinema. Gosford Park belongs on the shelf next to those masterworks. Unlike those other films, grounded in and reflective of their eras, Gosford Park feels uniquely timeless.

That’s not to imply that the film doesn’t seem like something he made. From the moment that characters begin arriving like a torrent of bounding pebbles in advance of a landslide, the film is unmistakably Altmanesque. Set in the early nineteen-thirties, Gosford Park finds its characters converging on a country estate in England, loaded down with steamer trunks and complicated backstories. There are intricate relationships to be sorted out between the upper crust ladies and gentlemen coming together for a weekend of hunting, feasting, dancing and drinking, not to mention the small battalion of servants that accompany them. As usual, Altman feels no obligation to spell it out clearly. The chatter accumulates like a dissonant symphony, each member of the orchestra playing their part, sometimes in sync with others, sometimes oblivious to the way their solo is obscuring another player’s vital sequence of notes. Julian Fellowes wrote the droll screenplay (based on an idea concocted by Altman and Bob Balaban), but it’s clearly Altman who shaped it into his own form of music.

If it’s confusing at times, that’s all right. I suspect it’s meant to be confusing. Even if it’s not, that quality works for the film. One of Altman’s points seems to be gently mocking the lunacy of this social miasma, where callousness and loaded emotional betrayals are the standard approach taken amongst these particularly privileged friends and associates. Suspicion, selfishness and indifference rule the day among the wealthy upstairs, and it’s all witnessed by the servants crushed into close quarters downstairs, their constant, compliant presence making them seem no more human or threatening than the wallpaper to their employers. Largely, it’s unnecessary to have every strand of the spiderweb sorted out. You just need to marvel at its astonishingly complex construction. Altman has created a munificently beneficial situation in which the inability to keep the players clear without a scorecard actually enhances his vision.

And what a grand collection of players he has at his disposal. At right around the time the Harry Potter film series asserted itself as a primer on great modern British character actors for kids, Altman’s movie effectively did the same for adults. Michael Gambon, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kelly Macdonald, Richard E. Grant, Clive Owen all race through the movie like thoroughbreds untethered, digging into the rich, witty dialogue and clearly reveling in the opportunity to work with a director with an uncommon respect for the work of actors, and a commensurate knack for drawing out the best in them. Besides those noted above, there’s especially strong work from Eileen Atkins as the caustic, observant cook at the titular estate, Maggie Smith deploying the sort of aghast suffering of slights that she has mastered like no other as a visiting doyenne, and Emily Watson, wryly intelligent as a housekeeper who has her own illicit connection with one of the wealthy denizens harrumphing above. Just when the cast already seems to have an abundance of jewels, in strides Stephen Fry, the embodiment of gentle befuddlement and accidental wit as a police inspector seeking to discern the identity of a murderer on premises.

That murder serves as the main plot of the movie, but not necessarily its story or, more accurately, its reason for being. Instead, the movie is really about the divide between the classes coexisting in this house, the intimate knowledge the lower class holds about the upper, and the upper’s blindness to this potentially dangerous fact. The system perpetuates this situation, as the police inspector quickly strikes the servants from suspicion in the wealthy man’s death because they, in his estimation, have no real connection to man. Despite the demeaning nature of this turn, the uniformed toilers are pleased to claim the absolution and keep going about their business. For a moment, injustice is better than the alternative. The comfort and familiarity of this sort of drawing room murder mystery provides Fellowes and Altman the pathway to make their acid-tinged arguments. The movie is terrifically entertaining, a true pleasure to watch, but it’s the deeper layers that make it rewarding. As he did throughout his properly revered career, Altman sought to make a movie with something to say. As he did throughout his career, he succeeded.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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