Gosford Park

UK/USA 2001, 137 mins
Director: Robert Altman

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

After unleashing an earthquake on Los Angeles in Short Cuts and a mini-typhoon on Savannah in The Gingerbread Man, Robert Altman begins Gosford Park (his first film set in the UK) with a simple rainstorm. Given the British obsession with the weather, it’s a clever conceit, one that allows the director to expose the iniquities of the class system in the 1930s without having to resort to dialogue. Constance, Countess of Trentham (played, with an hauteur worthy of Dame Edith Evans, by Maggie Smith) is about to climb into her car. Mary, her new maid, has to stand by in the downpour until her mistress is safely ensconced. Even then, she is not allowed to sit alongside her employer. This, then, is a society in which the rich stay dry while their servants get wet.

A comedy of manners with a murder mystery thrown in, Gosford Park comes billed as Renoir’s La Règle du jeu crossed with Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Not that Altman – who cooked up the idea with producer Bob Balaban and commissioned the screenplay from actor/writer Julian Fellowes – is especially interested in abiding by genre rules. His real focus here is sexual and social conspiracy among the guests gathered at the country estate of businessman Sir William McCardle and their servants. Robbed of a generation by World War I, hit by the decline of the Empire, baffled by modernity (whether embodied by Hollywood or by the moves to emancipate women), the aristocrats depicted here are in a state of siege. The reason they place such emphasis on etiquette is – Altman implies – precisely because their way of life is under threat. In one telling sequence, around the time of the murder of Sir William, the composer Ivor Novello, a real-life figure played here by Jeremy Northam, plays a medley of songs at the piano in the drawing room. The servants, all drawn to the music, abandon their duties. As they stand on staircases and lean against doors to listen, it’s as if they’re taking over the house where – above stairs at least – they have previously seemed invisible.

It’s easy to see why Altman included Novello. As a matinee idol, he can cross the boundaries between the classes. (It’s significant that the only other character seemingly at home in both parts of the house is also an actor, albeit one masquerading as a valet.) The aristocrats sneer at Novello because he is a teacher’s son, but they’re also intrigued by the glamorous world he comes from. He understands his own ambiguous status. ‘How do you put up with these people,’ his Hollywood-producer friend asks him after being exposed to a few chilly draughts of snobbery and anti-Semitism. ‘You forget,’ Novello replies, ‘I earn my living by impersonating them.’

As in so many of his best movies, Altman has a vast ensemble cast at his disposal. The haughty peers, slatternly maids and bossy housekeepers could easily have been turned into caricatures, but Altman eschews P.G. Wodehouse-style comedy, and instead strives to give characters with only a handful of lines psychological depth. There’s something touchingly absurd about the way Sir William’s valet keeps on serving him even after he’s dead, trying to make his corpse comfortable. The stony-faced butler seems much more sympathetic after he drinks himself senseless in fear of his war record as a conscientious objector becoming public. Above stairs, the quiet desperation of Meredith, the ex-officer turned businessman threatened with ruin, evokes as much pathos as contempt. Maggie Smith’s Grande Dame, too, has her moment of frailty, when she thinks Sir William is about to stop her allowance. Even the detested Sir William occasionally seems more sinned against than sinning.

Altman is far too subtle and insightful a filmmaker simply to dismiss the aristocrats as contemptible and to idealise the servants. Each world provides a distorted reflection of the other. Strangely, the servants cling to the rules of behaviour as stubbornly as their employers. There are further layers of irony. The aristocrats, for instance, whose eccentric habits would take a team of social anthropologists a small eternity to unravel, regard the antics of anyone outside their set, especially the Hollywood producer, as wilfully bizarre. And despite being cosseted by a small army of maids and butlers, they’re the ones who always seem exhausted: in one telling aside, the Countess of Trentham wearily complains about ‘breaking in’ a new maid.

Altman is clearly fascinated by the mechanics of country house living, giving time to such things as the strictly defined division of labour between different servants and the myriad tasks that must be performed for dinner to be served on time. This exacting approach to period detail can, in certain costume pictures, have a deadening effect on performance. But here Altman brings an improvisatory approach to dialogue and narrative, his camera flitting from character to character as if in search of the most memorable snatch of conversation. In recent years, his trademark polyphonic style (overlapping dialogue, long takes, prowling camerawork) was beginning to look mannered and self-indulgent. The Gingerbread Man and Cookie’s Fortune (both murder mysteries of a sort) and Dr T & The Women weren’t exactly misfires, but they were far from his best work. That’s why Gosford Park is such a revelation. Not only does Altman coax superb performances from his actors, whether relative newcomers or sacred monsters of stage and screen, his freewheeling approach also brings new life to that most ossified of genres – the country-house costume drama. This is a quintessentially British movie, but one which only an outsider with Altman’s energy could have made.
Geoffrey Macnab, Sight and Sound, February 2002

Director: Robert Altman
©/Presented by: Film Council
©: Zestwick Limited
©/Production Company: Sandcastle 5 Productions
Presented by: Capitol Films
Presented in association with: USA Films
Produced in association with: Chicagofilms, Medusa Film
Made with the support of: UK Film Council Premiere Fund
Executive Producers: Jane Barclay, Sharon Harel, Robert Jones, Hannah Leader
Producers: Robert Altman, Bob Balaban, David Levy
Co-producers: Jane Frazer, Joshua Astrachan
Associate Producer: Julian Fellowes
Production Executives (UKFC Premiere Fund): Brock Norman Brock, Luke Morris
For Sandcastle 5 Productions: Wren Arthur
For Chicagofilms: Allison Shigo
Business Affairs (UKFC Premiere Fund): Jackie O’Sullivan, Gillian Clyde
Production Finance (UKFC Premiere Fund): Vince Holden
Unit Manager: Joseph Jayawardena
Production Manager: Tori Parry
Production Co-ordinator: Winnie Wishart
Production Accountant: Alistair Thompson
Location Manager: Sue Quinn
1st Assistant Director: Richard Styles
2nd Assistant Director: Sara Desmond
3rd Assistant Director: Carlos Fidel
Director’s Assistant: May Chu
Script Supervisor: Penny Eyles
Casting: Mary Selway
Written by: Julian Fellowes
Based upon an idea by: Robert Altman, Bob Balaban
Director of Photography: Andrew Dunn
Camera Operator: Peter Taylor
Focus Pullers: Brad Larner, Mikael Allen
Clapper Loaders: Paul Wheeldon, Richard Sion Carroll
Gaffer: Pat Grosswendt
Grips: Pat Garrett, Malcolm Huse
Video Operator: Stephen Lee
Stills Photography: Mark Tillie
Digital Effects: Jim Henson’s Creature Shop
Special Effects Supervisor: Stuart Brisdon
Special Effects: United Special Effects
Editor: Tim Squyres
1st Assistant Editor: Amanda Pollack
2nd Assistant Editor: John F. Lyons
Production Designer: Stephen Altman
Supervising Art Director: John Frankish
Art Director: Sarah Hauldren
Art Department Co-ordinator: Shirley Robinson
Assistant Art Director: Matt Gray
Set Decorator: Anna Pinnock
Draughtsperson: Helen Xenopoulos
Property Buyer: Ray Lee, Fergus Clegg
Property Master: David Balfour
Construction Manager: Tony Graysmark
Costumes: Jenny Beavan
Assistant Costume Designer: Anna Kot
Costume Supervisor: Clare Spragge
Chief Make-up Artist: Sallie Jaye
Make-up Artists: Deborah Jarvis, Sharon Martin, Kate J. Thompson, Norma Webb
Hair Designer: Jan Archibald
Hairdressers: Anita Burger, Astrid Schikorra, Loulia Shepherd
Titles/Opticals: Cineimage, Steve Boag, Martin Bullard, Matthew Symonds
Music: Patrick Doyle
Music Conducted by: James Shearman
Music Orchestrated by: Patrick Doyle, James Shearman, Lawrence Ashmore
Sound Mixer: Peter Glossop
Boom Operators: Shaun Mills, Benjamin Bober
Re-recording Mixers: Robin O’Donoghue, Richard Street
Supervising Sound Editor: Nigel Mills
Supervising Dialogue Editor: Nina Hartstone
Stunt Co-ordinator: Dinny Powell
Studio: Shepperton Studios

Above Stairs
Maggie Smith (Constance Trentham)
Michael Gambon (William McCordle)
Kristin Scott Thomas (Sylvia McCordle)
Camilla Rutherford (Isobel McCordle)
Charles Dance (Raymond Stockbridge)
Geraldine Somerville (Louisa Stockbridge)
Tom Hollander (Lieutenant Commander Anthony Meredith)
Natasha Wightman (Lavinia Meredith)
Jeremy Northam (Ivor Novello)
Bob Balaban (Morris Weissman)
James Wilby (Freddie Nesbitt)
Claudie Blakley (Mabel Nesbitt)
Laurence Fox (Rupert Standish)
Trent Ford (Jeremy Blond)
Ryan Phillippe (Henry Denton)

Stephen Fry (Inspector Thompson)
Ron Webster (Constable Dexter)

Below Stairs
Kelly Macdonald (Mary MacEachran)
Clive Owen (Robert Parks)
Helen Mirren (Mrs Wilson)
Eileen Atkins (Mrs Croft)
Emily Watson (Elsie)
Alan Bates (Jennings)
Derek Jacobi (Probert)
Richard E. Grant (George)
Jeremy Swift (Arthur)
Sophie Thompson (Dorothy)
Meg Wynn Owen (Lewis)
Adrian Scarborough (Barnes)
Frances Low (Sarah)
Joanna Maude (Renée)
Teresa Churcher (Bertha)
Sarah Flind (Ellen)
Finty Williams (Janet)
Emma Buckley (May)
Lucy Cohu (Lottie)
Laura Harling (Ethel)
Tilly Gerrard (Maud)
Will Beer (Albert)
Leo Bill (Jim)
Gregor Henderson Begg (Fred)
John Atterbury (Merriman)
Frank Thornton (Mr Burkett)
Ron Puttock (Strutt)
Adrian Preater (McCordle’s loader)
John Cox, Ken Davies, Tony Davies, Steve Markham, Terry Sturmey, Julian Such (loaders)
Alan Bland, Peter Champion, Geoff Double, Robin Devereux, John Fountain, Richard Gamble, Brian Rumsey, George Sherman (beaters)
Widget (Pip the dog)

UK/USA 2001©
137 mins

The Gingerbread Man
Fri 9 Jul 20:40; Sat 17 Jul 17:50
Dr T & The Women
Sat 10 Jul 15:00; Mon 26 Jul 20:30
Gosford Park
Sun 11 Jul 15:20; Sun 18 Jul 18:20; Fri 23 Jul 14:30
The Player
Mon 12 Jul 17:45; Wed 28 Jul 20:30
The Company
Tue 13 Jul 17:50; Sat 31 Jul 11:50
Vincent and Theo
Tue 13 Jul 20:30
Kansas City
Thu 15 Jul 17:40
Short Cuts
Sat 17 Jul 19:30
Mon 19 Jul 17:40
A Prairie Home Companion
Sun 25 Jul 12:00; Sat 31 Jul 17:50
Cookie’s Fortune
Tue 27 Jul 17:40

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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