The first time I saw this film I thought it was lighter and less stiff upper lip than its reputation. I even tolerated that it used the oldest joke in the book – ‘…deaf in one ear.’ ‘Sorry?’ I also thought that this would end up being one of those movies where ‘nothing ever happens,’ even if it does.
Pardon the socialist reading of the film, but Robert Altman‘s GOSFORD PARK shows the class stratification between the dying British noble class and their servants. The latter is both gossipy best friend and lap dog to the former, this dual role making the relationship more complex, nuanced and multifaceted than any worse ‘camp’ possibilities it might have already had.
This latent function of the servants make them the eyes or the audience stand-ins for the movie, especially Mary MacEchran (Kelly MacDonald), the ‘Miss Trentham’ to Countess Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), Mary being new to the country world as we are. She’s the one finding out things like bringing a small box to store jewels that would be used on the first night. The secrets of the house falls under her lap, and she spends a significant time in the film running around the servants’ level to ask her coworkers why they’ve done certain things she wouldn’t.
What I love about this film are the scenes like Constance throwing a scarf at Mary to pack while leaving the house. It’s simple moments like this that can create a feeling of outrage within an audience, specifically because of how fast they can happen. Constance also does this childlike, as if she’s doing nothing wrong.
Then I realized that Constance, just like the upper classes in most movies set in the first half of the twentieth century, is a child. She needs an allowance that is threatened by Lady Sylvia McCordle’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) husband, businessman William (Michael Gambon), who for some reason has control of the finances that would be passed down from centuries long lines of nobles. It also reminds me of Vera’s condescension towards her own mother in “Mildred Pierce,” a warped and archaic mind-set that income is a birthright.
By earning his, William is threatening the nobility’s old world order, although that doesn’t stop them from depending on him. He is the one to ask for allowances and investment money, having created many businesses that continually exploit the poor in many ways. And they get disgruntled when he ruthlessly takes away.
The movie also shows the characters’ diverse reactions what is happening around them. Constance anticipates the shame in the inevitable event that would lead all of them to confess their grievances about William. Mary grows, although the sills she attains as a novice servant may eventually be useless. Sylvia’s callous, thinking about selling the house as if that is only a minor change.
However, there are characters like Elsie (Emily Watson, who usually plays innocent roles), the first head maid, the woman who teaches Mary about the big and little things about serving in a country house. She’s like the older sister, smoking a cigarette and telling a younger Mary on her lovers and the realities of romance and sex in the upper and middle classes. She wards off Henry Denton’s (Ryan Philippe) come-ons. She gets sacked for speaking to Sylvia out of turn but she bravely says that this even ‘might be the making of me,’ riding off in Hollywood producer Mr. Morris Weissman’s (Bob Balaban) car, a beginning in itself.