The Best Altman Gosford Park

Gosford ParkI have mentioned many times that Gosford Park is one of my very favorite films. But I’ve never really written about it. Tonight I sat down and watched it again and it has lost none of its power. It’s hard not to compare it to Downton Abbey which is like a cartoon version of Gosford Park. The difference is that Downton Abbey is pure genre. Godford Park is what we might call postmodern genre. It pretends to be genre but it isn’t. It is a manor drama where someone is murdered and there are lots of suspects. But no one really cares about the murder mystery and it is clear from the start that that the inspector is not going to get his man.

Although it is an ensemble cast with some of the best actors working, it is the story of Mary MacEachran, an inexperienced lady’s maid played by Kelly Macdonald. She is the first character we see at the start of the film and the last character with any dialogue, and pretty much the last character we see. Because she really doesn’t know her job, she acts as us. And as such, she is the only person who solves the murder. And she gains great wisdom throughout the film.

People always get mad at me for “spoiling” films by explaining what happens. I don’t think such complaints are valid. Barring truly surprising endings like The Sixth Sense and Psycho, we all know how films are going to end. But in Gosford Park, it probably helps to know what’s going on. Because it is the densest film I’ve ever seen. I’ve talked to people who have seen it once who had no idea what happened in the film. I had figured out what the crux of the film was within the first quarter of it, but it took me a good five viewings to get straight all the subplots. I think the importance of the orphanage is pretty obvious if you are watching the film closely. The script is really good at setting up the denouement.

But it isn’t the main plot that keeps me watching the film. It is filled with interesting characters, all trying to get through life as best they can. And although none of them are absolutely terrible people, most of them are not very likable. And sometimes it is very sweet. The three sisters are an exercise in literary formalism. One of the sisters married for money and has a miserable marriage. One of the sisters married for status and has a miserable marriage. And the youngest sister married for love and has a nice marriage, although they are constantly struggling financially.

The younger sister’s husband is Commander Anthony Meredith played by the always wonderful Tom Hollander. He is feeling defeated generally in life and has hid away in the jam cellar. Dorothy, servant responsible for the jams who is played by the equally wonderful Sophie Thompson comes upon him. He asks her, “Why is it, would you say, that some people seem to get whatever they want in life? Everything they touch turns to gold. Whereas others can strive and strive and have nothing. I wonder, do you believe in luck? Do you think some men are lucky and some men just aren’t and nothing they can do about it?” She responds, “I believe in love. Not just getting it, but giving it. I think that if you’re able to love someone, even if they don’t know it, even if they can’t love you back, then it’s worth it. And…” At that point, she realizes that she has been too forward and revealed too much of herself. She’s embarrassed, but his eyes have been opened. He says, “That’s a good answer.” Then he goes to his wife in the drawing room and kisses her quite publicly and passionately.

Now sure: that could be sentimental. But it isn’t. It’s just a simple scene that shows a man, who like all of us, has lost sight of what is good in his life by focusing on the little problems. He has the one thing that no other man in the film has: a wife who loves him. And even though everyone looks down on them, that’s not their problem. They have an absolute good. And the others are living their lives like they are playing a game.

The other standout subplot involves an aristocratic man who married a middle class woman for her money. The money turned out to be less than he had thought. And so he hates her because of their lack of money and because of her bourgeoisie tastes. He is cruel to her and arguably the least likable character in the whole film. But over the course of the film, she finds herself. She realizes that she has value and her husband is just a pompous bore. That marriage may not last, but he will no longer have the power over her.

Even my very favorite films have little flaws. Gosford Park has none. If you love great film, you owe it to yourself to watch it. But not just once. It takes a couple of times watching it to figure it all out. That isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable the first time. You will fully understand the film on one viewing, but it becomes richer and richer with subsequent viewings—at least up to six.

Afterword

I’m a big fan of Robert Altman, especially of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye and many others. But Gosford Park is the best thing he ever did.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “The Best Altman Gosford Park

  1. Beautifully put, well done. That’s exactly how I felt about "Downton Abbey." It’s the cartoon version. I understand why people enjoy it, as I understand why people enjoy the TV "M*A*S*H*." Both are well-done, among the more intelligent TV shows of their eras. Even as a teenager, though, who’d grown up on "M*A*S*H*" in syndication, once I saw the movie I realized I never wanted to see the TV show again. One was just a feeble imitation of the other.

    My mom was a huge fan of movies/Masterpiece Theater miniseries that adapted English literary classics; she adored the Merchant Ivory versions of Forster. I didn’t, because I went to a rich private school (on scholarship, not tuition!) and the worst snobs LOVED those movies. They mentioned how "Room With A View" celebrated Art and Culture and The Finer Things, comparing these to the crass popcorn movies enjoyed by cultural cretins such as myself. I hated "Room With A View" before I saw it.

    Actually, the Merchant/Ivory productions craftily played their Forster adaptations both ways; you could love the original books, as my working class, single mom did, and see some of Forster’s condemnation of English classism in the films. You could also be a total snob, and enjoy the films for their Finer Things (namely; the houses, the servants) while congratulating yourself for not being Nearly As Snobby As Those Old English Folks. (Just the way modern supporters of racism in American politics can congratulate themselves for not lynching anyone.) Downton Abbey strides the same fence; it’s no accident PBS usually runs features on the royalty, or tours of mansions, before new episodes air.

    "Gosford" was the last movie I saw with my mom before she died, and it was one of her all-time favorites. Mine, too. I don’t know if it’s quite as consistent, tonally, as some of Altman’s other work. But it balances his angry side and generous side just so perfectly. In some of his great films, the characters and world they inhabit feels so realistic and alien that it takes a viewer a while to get involved. While in something like "The Player," a viewer can get into the story right away, but never feel emotionally connected to the characters. "Gosford Park" sucks you into the world right away, and makes you care about everyone in it right away.

    And like so much of his work, it may be set in a strange or historical setting, yet is intensely topical. Altman went after inequality before anyone else did; maybe years of battling with studio numbskulls had clued him into the banality of money. When I saw it, I thought, "this is it, he should retire." But of course someone like Altman could no more retire than Gore Vidal.

    Shout out to Bob Balaban, an incredibly underrated actor, who co-wrote this. And to David Milch for being a unrepentant Altman worshipper. The connection between "McCabe" and "Deadwood" is pretty easy to spot, but recently I watched Milch’s "Luck" (it’s OK, nothing to rush out and see, although quality stuff) and it wasn’t until reading your post just now that it hit me, yep, "Luck" is heavily colored by "California Split."

    Thanks for reminding me of one of my favorite movies, and moviemakers.

  2. You should write why you love McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It’s one of the best movies of all time. It subverts western conventions the same way the Coens subvert noir, western conventions/cliches

    • Maybe someday. The film has a great look. But what I most like about it is that McCabe is a dreamer who can’t see reality and Miller is a realist who can’t escape reality except through her opium pipe. But there’s so much more.

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