“Now, now, we don’t want to be thought unsophisticated”
There’s a rather amusing moment on the Gosford Park DVD extras with a short documentary about how director Robert Altman but particularly writer Julian Fellowes tried to ensure the greatest level of authenticity in representing the world of service. Three people who were actually in service in the 1930s were employed as consultants on the film and their insights are genuinely fascinating and it shows. It’s just a shame that Fellowes took so little of that knowledge into creating the fanciful world of Downton Abbey with its blurred distinctions between masters and servants.
There’s no such problem in Altman’s film where the social divisions are sharply defined between upstairs and downstairs but where Gosford Park really grips is in the hierarchies and snobberies that exist throughout, the vagaries of the English class system permeating at all levels. The murder mystery that forms the biggest plot point is deliberately incidental as what is much more compelling is the intricate web of relationships that percolate through the McCordle’s country pile over a long weekend of shooting and the simply gobsmacking ensemble cast that was put together to portray them.
Upstairs is lots of glamorous fun with Kristin Scott Thomas and Geraldine Somerville a pair of delicious sisters, Michael Gambon and Charles Dance their grouchy husbands and Maggie Smith as the delightfully trenchant Countess of Trentham. For me though, downstairs is where its at. Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins doing battle as bitter rivals housekeeper and cook, Emily Watson and Clive Owen and Derek Jacobi and Sophie Thompson all shining as various servants and Kelly Macdonald serving as the eyes for much of the film as Trentham’s new lady’s maid, still coming to terms with the complexities of it all. And with the film’s focus more on character than plot, this proves rich pickings for this ensemble.
Truth be told I was quite surprised to find Lucy Cohu’s name in the credits as I hadn’t noticed her first time round, and without the knowledge that she’s one of the kitchen maids, you would be hard pressed to notice her but she does do some good whisking. But on a more serious note, Gosford Park is a highly elegant and beautifully crafted film that stands up well to repeat views and contains at least two moments of cinematic perfection is Maggie Smith’s uncontrollable giggling and the late scene between Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins’ characters which entirely justifies their damehoods.