Wednesday 14 March 2012

"Why do we spend our time living through them?"

          I love films. I really do, but there are times when I feel like the films that I loved when I was younger are the only ones that will stick with me properly. I feel that I am getting more and more cynical and irritable and frankly stupid, especially over the last couple of years, and that this may get in my way in enjoying films the way I used to. I know it is a dumb thought and that I am relatively quite young and my film knowledge is minuscule, but it still worries me a bit. Well, it worries me a lot because I don't know what I would do in my life if I stopped loving films. Thankfully there are enough films out there, though it takes me a while to get to them, that make me, for lack of a better word, reaffirm my faith in cinema and its power to shock, entertain and inspire.

          I'll give you an example before starting this apparent review (it is coming, I promise!). As stated above, my film knowledge is tiny and I had never seen a Robert Altman film up until last month. I started with MASH and then a few days back saw The Player. Needless to say, I enjoyed both of these films immensely, but that little spark that goes off when I really fall in love with a film didn't happen. So of course, the feeling of doom that I described earlier took hold of me and I started thinking that if I don't love films by a bona fide master like Altman, whose films have inspired film makers such as P.T. Anderson, how could I justify calling myself a cinephile (I am really paranoid, if you haven't guessed that already)? It is then that I sat down and watched a film that I know comes on the TV a lot but I have never watched because I thought it would be "dull" and I would hate it. The film is Gosford Park. And oh glorious cinema!

          If I had to give the most basic of plots, I would just quote the character of Morris Weissman from the film, "Most of it takes place at a shooting party in a country house. Sort of like this one, actually. Murder in the middle of the night, a lot of guests for the weekend, everyone's a suspect. You know, that sort of thing." Of course that is just the first layer. The story is set in early 30s, in a wealthy British home where a shooting party has been arranged. There is a wide range of characters present, divided between the "upstairs" or the rich masters group, and the "downstairs" or the group of servants. A few main ones are Sir William and Lady Sylvia McCordle, who live in Gosford Park and are the hosts, their aunt Countess Constance and her lady maid Mary, Weissman and his valet Henry Denton and actor Ivor Novello, the Stockbridges' valet Parks, Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Croft who are in charge of staff dowstairs, the housemaid Elsie and the footman George.

          Altman is known for his genius of making films with large ensembles. In Gosford Park, he takes it to a whole another level by showing the interactions between all these characters, within their own units and with each other. Everyone is besot with problems, and most of their problems are related to the haughty and cruel Sir Williams. But being the perfect guests and the perfect servants, they all have to follow a code of conduct and act cordially towards each other. There is plenty of gossip and scandals that come to light, and show how the many characters are each imperfect in their own way, no matter what is their standing in the society. And yes, a murder does take place, but in the grand scheme of this film, it is only a plot point.

          Another plot point would be the social commentary. I love the little worlds that this film tries to explore. I think there are many films that have shown the British upper class and similarly many that have shown the troubles of the servant class. Each come with their own brand of wit and humour. One cannot choose which one is better or more proper or anything. In many ways the rules and regulations of correct behavior  followed "downstairs" is more rigorous than "upstairs". We also see how the upper class exploits the lower class, but the film doesn't judge them very harshly because everyone is human there. One instance is when the Inspector and his constable come to investigate the murder. The former represents the upper class and tries to look all competent and he hushes his lower class partner whenever he actually unearths some substantial clues. It is all very funny, and I found that very commendable because we are not supposed to criticize them, but just observe things as they were, or rather still are.

          Then it also shows us a bygone age where etiquette came first and everything else followed. I have seen films from and about this era, but I don't think I have ever seen anything that shows the workings of a household like in Gosford Park. The character of Constance is a prime model for this. She looks like someone who belonged in a different age, when kings and queens were still prominent- she even wears a tiara to the dinner. The way she interacts with everyone younger than her, whether it be her naive lady maid or the oh so disagreeable Novello, we can understand how much she doesn't belong there, just like us if we were there. But she has fun, and so do we. As I said, this film makes us observe things and here the setting isn't just a setting, but an important part of the whole story. Gosford Park is as much about Gosford Park as it is about anything else.

          Cast-wise, this film is abundant with fantastic actors. I think everyone will agree that Dame Maggie Smith as Constance is easily the standout, but after her I feel everyone else has the same footing. All their little stories are intertwined and are equally important in the telling of the story. I thought everyone from the proud and mean McCordles played by Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott Thomas, the sweet Mary played by Kelly Macdonald, the seemingly honest Parks played by Clive Owen, the slightly slimy George played by Richard E. Grant, the conflicted and good-natured Elsie played by Emily Watson, the upright Mrs. Wilson played by Helen Mirren and then the obviously pouty and disagreeable Henry Denton played by Ryan Phillipe (no one does spoilt quite like him), was great. There are many others- the one that made me happiest was Stephen Fry as the Inspector. I don't know why Helen Mirren was nominated for her role though; I personally feel her character and performance was just as good as that of Macdonald or Watson. Maggie Smith however, was absolutely fabulous. She is the funniest, most unique and entertaining character of the lot, and even though she gives off the airs of a snob, she is quite kind-hearted still. I loved watching her every time she was there on the screen.

          Of the seven Oscars that Gosford Park was nominated for, it only won for Best Original Screenplay (robbed in the other categories by the completely inferior A Beautiful Mind). Julian Fellowes was given the job because Altman felt that he knew how such houses worked. And as I wrote earlier, that is one of the many charms of the film. He did so and gave the many characters depth and richness. He manages to explore the "upstairs" world and the "downstairs" world superbly. I love the dialogue, and how different it is for both these places. It is funny and snappy and sad and shocking, all in the right measure. There are parts of it which are obviously improvised by the many actors, but even so, to create such complex characters is more than commendable and absolutely award-worthy.

             Since I am talking about award-worthy things, I thought the cinematography and the music in the film were absolutely impeccable. Even though most of the film is set within a massive manor, it looks absolutely beautiful. The wooden interiors, and lamps and candles, and the different lighting for "upstairs" and "downstairs" make it such a treat for the eyes. I love how the beauty of the house accompanies the ugliness of its inhabitants. Also, it was very much crucial to the Agatha Christie-esque whodunnit murder mystery aspect of the film. Then the score by Patrick Doyle, which is understated but adds to the mood and the loveliness of the setting, is ideal. Finally the Ivor Novello songs that are sung by Jeremy Northam, who was playing the character, or by his brother, are excellent for two reasons. One because of the remarks by Maggie Smith's character throughout, which are hilarious, and the other because of the way it leads, rather deceivingly and brilliantly, to the act of murder. I think these two scenes, along with the one which has Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Croft towards the end, stick with me the most.

         Finally, finally, I come to directing and to Altman. As I said, I am completely in awe by how he was able to direct so many actors and so perfectly too. I like the way he lures us into this film, into all of these characters, and into Gosford Park. I could not tear my eyes away from the screen. So many facets to a film that could have as simple as how Mr. Weissman describes it. And most fantastically, Altman does manage to mystify us with that part of the story as well. Another thing was the comedy. Yes I have seen only three of his films, but all of them had a certain sense of humour about them and I think it works best for me in this film. It isn't harsh or sarcastic or anything, but one look from Maggie Smith or a phone call for Weissman or even just a glimpse of Sir Williams beloved dog, and we cannot help but be amused. To make a British period murder mystery comedy which provides an insight into the workings of the upper class and the lower class and their varied natures, and well; if that doesn't make me a die-hard fan, I don't know what will! Simply put, I am blown away by Mr. Altman's work here.

           Coming a full circle, films like Gosford Park, directors like Robert Altman and actors like Maggie Smith make me thankful for the art of cinema. Even if I try to stop loving films, I know that gems like these would never let me, and that once again I will be filled with wonder and amazement.


  1. How odd, I adore this film and Maggie is hardly the standout for me. Mirren gets top honours for me closely followed by the lovely Kristin Scott Thomas as Sylvia McCordle then, some amalgamation of Owen, MacDonald, Phillippe (who does his finest work), Gambon, Atikins an d Smith.

    But, the movie is fantastic either way and yes the cast is excellent.

    1. It might be because I love characters like Constance so much. As I said, it appeals to my sense of humour and Smith does it so brilliantly that I have been praying to be her in my next life ever since I saw this film :P
      But I really liked the other actors too.
      Yes it is fantastic.
      Thanks for commenting :)

  2. Just from your opening paragraphs-- you take things too seriously! Chill out, it's just movies! Sometimes films suck for like 6 months at a time. Luckily the sun is still shining, and we can go out and fall in and out of love.

    One fantastic movie a year is better than 500 crappy films--- just enjoy the magic feeling when you get it! :)

    1. Haha. Yes I really should chill out. But the thing is I tend to believe that something is wrong with me when I think the films suck, and not so much the films. I'm really weird like that.
      But I totally agree with you.
      Thanks for the comment :)

  3. I completely understand you, because I feel the same way about films I watched when I was younger - they are often the ones I just love, love, love to bits! For instance, I rewatched Finding Nemo recently, and it is so great!
    But just like you, I always find another great film that reminds me of my love for cinema. Right now I have a problem with pessimistic films, I just want to watch comedies... but maybe that will change too, soon.

    1. Oh my god, I'm going through the same thing! I keep wanting to watch comedies and good action flicks that won't depress me in any way. Just the thought of a sad or serious film and I run in the opposite direction. I too hope that that would change :)

  4. Wow, what a wonderful review, I loved it! I think the British rubbed off on you a little bit :)
    I haven't seen it yet (tragedy, I know), but I will, soon, the cast is too good to let it pass so quickly!
    Also, from what you described, it's very similar to Downton Abbey, so check that out, if you haven't already!

    1. Thank you Diana! Haha I'm a total Anglophile, didn't you know?
      Oh do watch it. It's fun.
      Yeah I've heard it is like Downtown Abbey. That show is my must-watch list, even though I fear I will start imitating Maggie Smith all the time.