Friday, April 4, 2014

Gosford Park


I have disastrous news to report. My fabulous kabuki musical version of The Last SeductionBridget Over Troubled Waters has been indefinitely postponed. The producers telephoned to tell me that the chief investor has withdrawn his backing and decided to invest in K-Mart shares instead. I am absolutely devastated. All that hard work. The dream ballet on eating disorders, Crouching Twinkie, Hidden Ding-Dong was to be my signature piece over the next decade.

I contacted Joseph, my manager, immediately to give him the horrible news. He confided to me that the real reason the investors had gotten cold feet was due to rampant drug use amongst the cast and that they were afraid some of them might not be up to the physical rigors of eight shows a week. He promised to come up with a new project for me tout suite and is getting together with Madame Rose, my publicist, quickly to figure out a new career move while my career remains white hot.

I could not imagine which of the cast was having trouble with drugs as I added some of that Special K additive to my afternoon coffee and called Nurse Lynn. I needed a new film to take my mind off my woes. We headed off to the Cineplex together to see Gosford Park, Robert Altman's new film about a weekend in the country on a British estate in the early 1930s. The film is one to which I have been looking forward as it's a veritable who's who of the British acting community.

The titular Gosford Park is the stately home of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), an aging industrialist with a great deal of money and a taste for shooting pheasants. He has married into the old landed British aristocracy and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), has invited various friends and relations for a weekend country house party. Amongst the guests are her elderly aunt (Maggie Smith), dependent on an allowance from Sir William for her indolent life style; her sister Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) and her husband (Charles Dance); her rather plain daughter (Camilla Rutherford) and her suitor (Laurence Fox) and his chum (Trent Ford); an oily blackmailer trying to get at Sir William through the daughter (James Wilby) and his wife (Claudie Blakely); a potential business partner whom Sir William wishes to get rid of (Tom Hollander) and his wife (Natasha Wightman); and the matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) accompanied by an American film producer (Bob Balaban) researching the lives of the privileged British classes for an upcoming Charlie Chan film.

On the other side of the baize door are the McCordle's servants including the butler (Alan Bates), the housekeeper (Helen Mirren), the cook (Eileen Atkins), an oily footman (Richard E. Grant), a parlor maid (Emily Watson), a kitchen maid (Sophie Thompson)and the master's valet (Derek Jacobi). Visiting servants added into the mix include the aunt's maid (Kelly McDonald), a visiting valet (Clive Owen) and a sexually ambiguous manservant (Ryan Phillipe) traveling with the producer.

This is not a film about plot and narrative through line but rather one about atmosphere and texture. As all of these characters come together upstairs and downstairs, secrets are revealed. Relationships change. There is, eventually, a murder, introducing a bumbling police inspector (Stephen Fry) into the mix. Altman's camera swoops down halls and cuts back and forth between upstairs and down revealing overlapping layers of action and conversation, creating a jigsaw puzzle that's up to the viewer to solve. Most of the pieces eventually fall into place - the few that are left hanging, well that's the way life is.

The aristocrats, with their white tie, bias cut dresses, and carefully marcelled coiffures, lead a life of unpleasant lassitude and rudeness disguised as class. Maggie Smith, as the family grand dame, steals every moment she can with her withering put downs of all those she does not feel to be her social equals. Kristin Scott Thomas, as the hostess, also has some lovely moments of waspish wit. Jeremy Northam's handsomeness and lovely voice add a touch of glamour as Ivor Novello, a real person who was a rival of Noel Coward's as court jester to the smart set, singing for his supper and sneering behind the smile.

Most of the better moments, however, happen in the servant's hall with Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Emily Watson and Clive Owen all having remarkable moments of emotional truth. These servants are true servants. They watch in silence, learn the secrets, protect their employers and anticipate their wants. I've never seen a film which shows the uncanny bond between master and man better.

There are a couple of weak spots in the film. Bob Balaban, a fine actor, is playing a fish out of water and he relies a little too much on playing contrast to the Brits rather than commonalities. His protégé, Ryan Phillipe, is out of his depth. A pretty face and a false accent do not a performance make. Stephen Fry also overdoes his bit as the police inspector and verges on Clouseau territory, out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the film.

Altman has lost none of his ability to handle a large ensemble cast and intertwining plots. He and Balaban came up with the idea for the film some years ago and Julian Fellowes came aboard later to create a screenplay from their preliminary discussions. The recreation of that vanished between the Wars world of the British aristocracy at play is marvelous, both linguistically and in the meticulous attention to detail in set, costumes, and props.

This is a hugely enjoyable film that requires active engagement of the viewer. It may frustrate some as the audience is not told where to look or what to think, rather they are shown a slice of life and must make up their own minds about it.

Bottles of poison. Missing carving knife. Yapping lap dog. Two fork fish eating. Warm milk delivery. Vegetarian diet problems. Spilled tomato juice. Beaters in the woods. Long lost parents.

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