Gosford Park

If you ever needed confirmation that the British society in the middle of the 20th century was a model of waste, corruption and decay - you need to watch Gosford Park. The stratified society, built upon a crumbling edifice of self importance and ineptitude, is depicted brilliantly in this rather languid portrayal. Unfortunately, as a narrative, the movie lacks punch. A multitude of red herrings, dead-end plot moves, and a confusing cast takes away from the period piece. There is a thin line between brilliant and mind-boggling, and unfortunately the movie tends to boggle unreasonably. Foreign culture is always bewildering to the outsider; the mark of a great movie is not just to stay true to the culture but to make it more accessible to those on the outside. Unfortunately, Gosford Park makes little attempt to do that.

This is not a whodunnit. Yes, there is a murder, and there is a mystery. But the who is as irrelevant as the why. What matters instead is the delicate maneuvering, intrigue and corruption that surrounds the event itself. And the absolutely lack of empathy and basic moral decency, that characterizes the cast of characters. There isn't much to keep from the movie, unless maybe if you are British. But even then the movie is probably more provocative than cathartic.

The year is 1932, and the world, according to the British system is divided into two halves - the upstairs of the lords and their ladies, and the downstairs filled with their valets, butlers and assorted servants. One such allegorical structure is maintained by Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) in their idyllic country house. The two have invited a number of guests for a shooting party; the list includes an assortment of family members, their spouses, and Hollywood celebrities. Through the movie, the party moves from meal to meal, punctuated by a round of shooting birds, and a murder.

What follows was something out of the P.G. Wodehouse books, without the narrator or Jeeves. To be fair some of the conversations are witty - British witty - particularly those involving the aunt of the lady of the house. Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) is the stereotypical patient zero when it comes to snobbishness. Her cringe-worthy retorts and too-loud comments are funny, yet juxtaposed by her abject need, serve to provide a commentary upon the two-faced nature of aristocracy.

There are two other characters that define the story. There is an American producer that seemed to serve two purposes through the movie - make it more accessible to American audiences by making fun of the British, and be the foil upon which to prove that the society was decadent at best and rotten at worst. The second character is Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), Lady Trentham's maid. A young impressionable girl, she is the closest to a narrator who is the single source of sense and innocence in the characters of the movie.

I began to lose the movie when following the characters became difficult, which was about 5 minutes after checking into the country house. The presumably accurate and heavy British accent did not help. In the end the movie runs more like a documentary, like a time-capsule of life between the two wars. Which would have been great if I could have done some pre-study or had a program to follow along. Without either it just became a challenging watch, with lots of promise but no actual reward at the end of it all.

March 30, 2011

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