Serve the Servants

Robert Altman’s new masterpiece.

Set in England between the World Wars, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (USA Films) is a satirical drawing-room whodunnit that is ultimately about the misery and in some cases tragedy of servants who lived to attend to aristocrats—employers who never questioned an unjust social order or their own immorality. It makes you think: “What shallow, oblivious, casually destructive people. How fitting that such a world proved unsustainable.” Of course, it also makes you think: “What a sumptuous way to live. How comforting a world in which everyone knew his or her place.” If you’re like me, you finally reconcile these two lines of thought by concluding: “What a director.” Is there anyone but Altman who could have pulled off such an effervescent mix of satire, affection, and devastating rebuke? And attracted such an ensemble? And let everyone work at this high level? And kept the action in perfect focus? And made it all so damned entertaining?

It’s time to own up to my convictions: I await a new movie by Altman as I would a new ballet by Balanchine, a new symphony by Mahler, a new novel by Dickens. There is no modern director whose frames are so uninsistently alive and whose sympathies are so gracefully distributed. It wasn’t always this way. After a flurry of masterpieces in the early ‘70s, the Altman of the late ‘70s and ‘80s often let his counterculture ire get the best of him, taking too-easy potshots at the characters in Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), A Wedding (1978), H.E.A.L.T.H. (1979), and many other films. It’s possible that his mocking instincts will get the better of him, again: He’s a volatile fellow. But in Gosford Park, his contempt for these upper-class monsters is kept in check by his awe for these marvelous British actors, who were encouraged on the set to improvise freely. The upshot isn’t neutrality—Altman is never neutral. It’s lively curiosity—a kind of buoyant raptness. If nothing else, he doesn’t know what these people will do or say next. He’s always poised for delight.

So are we, from the first rainy frames, in which Mary Macreachran (Kelly MacDonald), the new lady’s maid of the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), is drenched for the sake of helping her employer open a flask. They’re on their way to a hunting party at the manor of old Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his sleek, insouciant wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas); it’s more or less through Mary’s eyes that we’re introduced to this orderly (but tremulous) universe. The way Altman cuts between the upstairs and the downstairs—keeping his chattering classes in constant motion—is meant to disorient. It’s all indirection, sometimes mischievous misdirection: You have to work to get your bearings, map out the relationships, separate the salient from the inconsequential—all while Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes are winking at you with sundry motives for murder, red herrings, and pointed shots of knives and poison bottles.

Upstairs among the lords, ladies, countesses, and honorable muck-a-mucks are lassitude, ennui, and a surprising amount of financial anxiety (Those Suez schemes didn’t always pan out.) Downstairs, where the visiting servants are addressed by the names of their employers by the butler (Alan Bates), head housekeeper (Helen Mirren), and head cook (Eileen Atkins), a different kind of social order reigns. The boundaries are fixed but porous: The most loving relationship in the film might be between Sir William and his mistress, the head housemaid (Emily Watson), and Lady Sylvia fixes a visiting valet (Ryan Phillippe) with unembarrassed lust. Everything is in motion: Up and down corridors the characters go, past doors that open a crack or close abruptly, past clockwork chores or furtive, half-glimpsed trysts. And while Altman and Fellowes are setting us up for a murder, a visiting Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban) is plotting his Charlie-Chan-in-London mystery by transcontinental telephone, breathlessly reporting that there’s one butler but many valets and maids, that servants actually have tasks to perform, that there’s all kinds of things that Hollywood mysteries don’t show.

The exhilaration is slow to build. It doesn’t come from any one thing but from countless crosscurrents, tiny bits of color that fill out the portrait: a fleeting subversive smirk of first footman Richard E. Grant; the Hollywood dreams of second footman Jeremy Swift; the moist, lap-dog attentiveness of Gambon’s valet, Derek Jacobi; the stiff, saturnine (inebriated?) imperiousness of Bates’ white-browed butler. Slinky, enigmatic visiting valet Clive Owen gives off sinister vibes, like a romantic Boris Karloff. While the matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) plays and sings for the guests (and the discreetly star-struck servants), Smith’s countess bemoans his vulgarity: Does she resent him for being a showman or because he’s gay (something only hinted at here)? She’s an awful snob, yet the great actress suggests something frightened and vulnerable beneath her ostentatious sense of entitlement.

I could go hoarse singing the praises of this cast, of MacDonald’s plaintive befuddlement and Watson’s heartbreaking (but so sexy) mixture of jadedness and hope. I wanted even more of the lovely Camilla Rutherford as Sir William’s discombobulated daughter; of Claudie Blakley as the plain, mistreated wife of a debt-ridden hanger-on (James Wilby); of Atkins’ sour and cryptic head cook, whose anti-pathetic relationship with Mirren’s Mrs. Wilson is the key downstairs subtext. Mirren has won—and will win—all kinds of awards for this role, for the very good reason that her wrenching final scene makes sense of every disapproving glance and tight inflection that has preceded it. No superlatives of mine can do her justice: You must see this performance.

You say Gosford Park isn’t much of a whodunnit? That at this late date we hardly need any more smug lefty reminders of the cruelty of the class system? That this is all such Merchant-Ivory territory? Yes to the above, but Gosford Park transcends these objections and more. What makes the movie miraculous is Altman’s gaze. Writing about his Dr. T& the Women (2000), I cited Manny Farber’s essay on the “dispersed frame” directors of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ones more fascinated by a “flux-like space” than by bogus order or symmetry. That goes tenfold here: In these bustling, seemingly chaotic frames there are momentous forces at work. In Cookie’sFortune (1999), Altman presented a sort of social ecosystem—a beautifully balanced design for living—that was thrown out of whack by the machinations of a frightened snob (Glenn Close). The natural order reasserted itself, as it did in Dr. T when Richard Gere discovered that he wasn’t in control of a universe of women just because he treated them chivalrously and knew their organs inside out. Gambon’s Sir William thinks he’s in control, too—socially, sexually, politically, economically. He doesn’t comprehend the forces that will somehow deliver his executioners to his doorstep and sweep him into eternity. Thanks to Altman’s latest masterpiece, we know whoddunnit, we know why, we see a whole teeming world spread out before us, and it almost makes sense.