In a Florence pensione circa 1900 with English guests, George Emerson (Julian Sands) and his dad (Denholm Elliott) offer their rooms with views to Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) and her chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett (Dame Maggie Smith). Lucy and George get acquainted, but Lucy returns to England. George and Lucy meet again, but now she's engaged.
Helena Bonham Carter,
Set in the 1930s, the story takes place in an old-fashioned English country house where a weekend shooting party is underway. The story centers on the McCordle family, particularly the man of the house, Sir William McCordle (Sir Michael Gambon). Getting on in years, William has become a benefactor to many of his relatives and friends. As the weekend goes on, secrets are revealed, and it seems that everyone, above stairs and below, wants a piece of William and his money, but how far will they go to get it?Written by
We shall never find that lovely land of might-have-been.
Jeremy Northam's voice instantly hypnotizes the cooks, maids, and footmen at Gosford Park. He lifts their spirits, they forget themselves, and for a moment all work ceases. The irony here is that because they're so entranced they fail to grasp the song's meaning, which is about hopeless longing and dreams unfulfilled. It puts smiles on their faces anyway, but has no effect at all on the upstairs guests, who spend so much energy posturing that they can't seem to recognize the value of any of the many graces offered to them. The downstairs staff certainly appreciates the entertainment, since they toil day and night over details like the distance between the knife and the fork, and whether strawberry marmalade will suffice when the raspberry jam runs out. 'The perfect servant has no life,' declares Mrs. Wilson, and while her pride is admirable, her sacrifice is tragic. What a shame, giving all of your time away to dote on people who don't themselves seem to know how to live, either.
The super wealthy can't be entirely blamed for their plight, which I think stems from loneliness. People tend to behave oddly around the rich and famous—they get nervous, begin putting on an act, or trying so hard not to that they clam up. Like a highway patrol cop in traffic, the presence of esteem inspires everyone close by to alter their behavior. It makes sense then that the rich prefer to surround themselves with hired help who are paid to behave respectfully rather than go out into the world and live their lives in public. Their wealth affords them the illusion of a public life in a private and controlled setting. The danger is that after spending years dealing primarily with one's own servants, one might become incapable of dealing with anyone else even, say, an inspector who needs help solving a murder.
Consider the inspector's interactions with the guests. They treat him like the pizza delivery guy. They talk at him flippantly, begrudge him a moment for questioning, and fail to summon a shred of helpful information. This apparent insubordination is more out of apathy than defiance, and the inspector isn't blameless either. He treats witnesses with kid gloves, allows himself to be interrupted but never himself interrupts. I imagine that he would have more vigorously interrogated potential witnesses had the murder occurred in a poor or middle class district, but he behaves submissively when dealing with the guests at Gosford Park.
Attending a shooting party like this one is an exercise in straddling that line between intent and image. Image obscures intent, so it must be hard, being a wealthy host, to trust whether guests are attending out of true friendship. We, the audience, can certainly be sure that they are not because of the film's fly on the wall point of view. We quickly become aware of their disparate natures, that they only harmonize in their collective effort to remain in the good graces of Sir William. To open up to each other is to risk exposure or embarrassment, so distance is crucial to maintain a safe proximity. These aren't friends; these are satellites in tow. I makes sense, then, that when Sir William is killed and an inspector starts asking questions, no investigative headway is made. This is because as far as the guests are concerned, with Sir William gone there is no longer any need to engage. It's time to float away, like debris in outer space.
The idea of behavior obscuring motive is relatively foreign to Americans. I recently hosted an English traveler who needed a couch to crash on, and he told me that in English culture, protocol of behavior is of the utmost importance. "We can enslave entire cultures, but we'll do it with a stiff upper lip, while we have our afternoon tea," he said. I believe Americans tend to flaunt our motives more overtly, embody them. It's seen as a sign of virtue when a salesman embodies salesmanship, an athlete competition, a computer whiz nerd-dom. I feel (and this is pure conjecture) that to embody 'good manners' is valued but not to the degree that it is in Europe, particularly England. In America, we are almost suspicious of those whose intentions aren't clear. Consider the way characters in reality shows interact. Their behavior is motivated by primordial urges—chiefly, the urge to impose their personality. The line 'I'm not here to make friends' seems to be a reoccurring catchphrase. Gosford Park operates by almost opposing values: America's brand of 'reality' is best concealed so that the surface always appears squeaky clean. I would guess that even a non-English speaker, having spent a weekend with the casts of any of the new 'real world' shows, would walk away with a pretty good understanding of who those people are simply because the personalities are so unabashed. Yet I feel as though a fellow English speaker, even a thoughtful and aware individual, could spend a weekend at Gosford Park and walk away thinking only of how charming the affair was, but having no clue as to what was really going on.
Despite all of this I can't agree with the film's outlook, an outlook I would call altogether cynical. The alternative to the lifestyle of affluence is a lifestyle of needs-based living. For years I lived minimally, considering excess a burden and ambition a form of avarice, and you know maybe I wasn't wrong. But if we must rise with each new day, I don't see the harm in striving for some form of highness, even if illusory, as long as an attempt is made towards balance. This film is about the imbalance, the extremity of Postbellum English aristocracy. It emphasizes the evils and the folly that wealth and servitude cause without acknowledging that wealth is simply the end result of something inherently good. It doesn't express the reality that if we didn't posture whatsoever, we would be left crawling.
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