The Cruel Place We Know

Robert Altman’s rollicking upstairs-downstairs satire of England between the wars, Gosford Park, is not as ambitious as Nashville, his 1975 phantasmagoria of country music, antiwar sentiment, the cult of celebrity and Middle-American chaos; not as formally impressive as The Player (1992), whose brilliant, eight-minute title tracking shot calls to mind an entire history of cinema — replete with allusions to Pretty Woman and Touch of Evil — as it introduces the callow inner workings of a high concept studio; not as sharply drawn, as dangerous, as the earthquakes, car accidents, riverbed corpses and prank calls of the almost-apocalyptic Short Cuts (1993); and certainly not as sweet or valedictory as A Prairie Home Companion (2006), the director’s last film, in which the folksy, sometimes funereal ballads of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin come to seem stand-ins for an entire ideology of art and culture long ago lost.

But of his films large and small — and here I’ve merely touched upon the large, leaving out McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 3 Women, A Wedding, The Long Goodbye, Dr. T and the Women, innumerable others — Gosford Park is perhaps the best, the most controlled, the one which most succeeds in straddling that ever-elusive line between comedy and drama, the one so thick with meaning and detail that I feel I’m still discovering the film ten viewings on.

Ostensibly a murder mystery set at a shooting party in the English countryside in 1932, the film is better understood, I think, as a few dozen chamber dramas and family sitcoms tied together into a coherent whole, aided by Altman’s magnificent ability to keep the action just this side of nervous breakdown — all while maintaining the intimations of such, the social anxiety, the secrets and lies, the sense that the England of the Depression was already roiling for a fight. Julian Fellowes’ superbly acute, witty and ultimately affecting script only misfires by making Stephen Fry’s police inspector too much an unthinking boor, and minus Fry’s disappointingly broad humor, the same could be said for the cast. I wouldn’t be the first to call it a Who ’s Who of British stage and screen during the last four decades, or the first to find it a bit difficult to keep everything straight.

But here goes: Maggie Smith, deliciously frigid and snobbish as the Countess of Trentham, begging for an increased allowance and devouring each meal with relish while turning up her nose at store-bought marmalade; Michael Gambon as the owner of the estate, William McCordle, a capitalist come up from nothing by working young girls to the bone in sweatshops before the war, and sleeping with them to boot; Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Sylvia, bored even by murder; Derek Jacobi as the unfailingly loyal butler, Probert; Emily Watson, devilish, seductive and bitterly funny as Elsie, the lady’s maid (who happens also to be having at affair with William); Clive Owen as the mysterious — and also seductive — valet Robert Parks; and Eileen Atkins as the curmudgeonly, hard-nosed cook, Mrs. Croft, with just the faintest streak of gentleness in her face, as though it’s been buried under the past.

That was quite long, but it doesn’t even touch on the three finest performances, the ones that create the moments in which the film transcends its simpler purpose and gets at real feeling, the tenderness and beauty beneath the facades of class. First there’s Kelly Macdonald as Trentham’s maid, Mary, the film’s moral center, just discreet enough to keep her job and just indiscreet enough to win our hearts, the one through whom the emotional core of the film begins to enter our view. Then there’s the always masterful Helen Mirren, as head maid Mrs. Wilson, a woman woven up so tightly that when the seams tear the revelation that follows suggests all the cruelties of class, of even having an upstairs and downstairs so rigidly separated — it’s a moment, indeed a performance, that fills the gut and hurts the heart. And in an underrated role, a singing Jeremy Northam plays the silent film star Ivor Novello, entertaining people who look down on him for his talents. Crooning “The Land That Might Have Been” as the servants sneak into the darkened rooms upstairs and bask for a few joyous moments in one of life’s tiny, surprising pleasures, his words wrap up the film in microcosm, swooning through the disappointments and hopes of an entire country, alluding to the darkened rooms of the past — and looking toward the light, into some tenuous, questioning hope:

Somewhere there's another land
different from this world below,
far more mercifully planned
than the cruel place we know.
Innocence and peace are there--
all is good that is desired.
Faces there are always fair;
love grows never old nor tired…

Shall we ever find that lovely
land of might-have-been?
Will I ever be your king or you
at last my queen?
Days may pass and years may pass
and seas may lie between--
Shall we ever find that lovely
land of might-have-been?

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