I saw this film yesterday in Paris. Experiencing it with a French audience
no doubt enhanced its power to reinforce the feeling of being in voluntary
exile from Britain. Today I have been haunted by recurrent images of the
servants' domain, a warren of low corridors, cramped rooms and frantic
industry that I had never seen before. The grandeur of life upstairs we
all seen many times, but never in such a context of servants' lives. The
image was of a workhouse or factory jammed into the basement of a palace.
Factories play a significant role in the story: the lord of the manor owns
several and a number of the servants started out in them. Imagine what life
in the factories was like (the film is set in the 1930s) if domestic
of this kind was a step up.
The overwhelming tenor of the society is one of brutality. The owners behave savagely towards the servants and to each other. The servants reproduce this in their own hierarchies. Only Americans could have made this movie, since the British are still seduced by the national glory the lifestyle represents. The plot is eventually a murder mystery, but no-one pays much notice to the victim, since it seems to be a natural expression of the culture he embodied. Gosford Park is so parodic of the Agatha Christie genre invented in this period as to point up the bitterness of the social satire. There are not many jokes.
What then is this magnificent cast of British actors doing in such a movie? Many of the greatest of them on show perform as servants: the superb Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates, Eileen Atkins. Some of the others create memorable upper class monsters: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott-Thomas. Does this express what they feel about their role in a British society dependent on Americans to make films? The creaking plot device of an invasion of Hollywood types doesn't quite work, but it does allow us to see the British as others see them.
What makes this film tragic for me is that it depicts the appallingly recent source of a contemporary Britain that has not shaken off the loss of an empire it made in the image of the society revealed here. I grew up after the war, but my journey from the provincial lower classes to Oxbridge and beyond constantly exposed me to the residue of this brutal class hierarchy. It is the mark of a great movie to make us feel that we are seeing something new. Altman has done us all a favour by exposing upstairs/downstairs without any hint of mystique. I wonder if, when seen through the cultural blinkers of London's suburbs, it provokes nostalgia, not pity, if only to witness so many of our greatest actors as servants looking their age.
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