Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Diary of a "Gosford Park" Chambermaid

One of my favorite movies I never tire of watching is Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" (2001).  Even though I've said for years that Altman's "Nashville" (1975) is my favorite movie (and that hasn't changed), I sometimes think that "Gosford Park" might be an even better film.  It's the story about the interrelationships between wealthy Britons and their servants who are at an English country estate for a shooting party weekend, and what happens to them when a murder takes place.  But it is much more than that.  It truly is a multi-layered character study where you can pick up new nuances and meanings with each viewing.  What's interesting is how my perceptions of its characters have either changed or deepened through the years.  Because screenwriter Julian Fellowes appears to have personal experience, from his upbringing, with the sorts of characters from the English upper and servant class being portrayed, "Gosford Park" turns out to be a much more compassionate, though no less satirical or trenchant, than Altman's other films.  It's not as cynical or misanthropic about humanity as Altman's other films because Fellowes makes sure that the movie plays fair with its characters.  You've got upper class characters (such as Jeremy Northam's Ivor Novello and Charles Dance's Lord Raymond Stockbridge) who have decent qualities, as well as servants (such as Adrian Scarborough's complaining and back-stabbing Barnes, valet to Tom Hollander's hapless Commander Anthony Meredith) who are actually venal and devious people.  But my favorite character is Emily Watson's sullen, sexy, and sympathetic head housemaid Elsie.

Elsie has been working for the hosts of the shooting party weekend, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his shallow wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) at their estate called Gosford Park for several years.  She has been having an affair with Sir William for quite some time, and finds herself frequently defending the unrefined and unsympathetic Sir William whenever people disparage him in her presence.  Sir William is all things to all people, but somehow Elsie brings out the best in him.  Elsie acknowledges at one point, after Sir William has been murdered, "I didn't love him.  I didn't mind him, but...I liked the way he talked.  He only talked to me because he was sick of her (Lady Sylvia) but I liked it.  He used to say to me I could be anything I wanted as long as I wanted it enough....What did he used to say?  'Carpe Diem.'  Seize the day."  It's because of this that Elsie has a healthy self-respect and self-confidence that many of the other servants do not have about themselves.  She does not base her self-worth on her employer's social standing.  When one of the other servants proudly quotes her employer by saying "Lady Lavinia says a woman who travels with no maid has lost her self respect.  She calls it 'giving in'" Elsie defiantly responds by saying "I don't have a maid.  I haven't given in."  When the other servant says "That's different," Elsie challenges her by asking "Why?"  To Elsie, working for the McCordle's is just a job until she figures out what she plans to do the rest of her life.  It's not a way of life as it is for the other servants.  She is someone who has not bought into her country's class system.

As such, Elsie's sympathies are not cut purely across class lines.  Elsie serves as a confidante to Lord William and Lady Sylvia's vulnerable young daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), who is being blackmailed by the treacherous unemployed banker Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) over an undisclosed secret that Isobel doesn't want her father to find out about.  Similarly, Elsie comforts Freddie's seemingly meek wife Mabel (Claudie Blakley) after she walks in on a particularly ugly scene where Freddie degrades and denigrates Mabel.  After Freddie leaves the room, Elsie gives Mabel a handkerchief to wipe away her tears and helps Mabel look presentable before she joins the other guests at the formal dinner downstairs.  The interesting aspect to Elsie's character is that, unlike the other servants, she's not friendly with these women because she's trying to score points with people in the upper class.  She's friendly with them because she likes them personally, not based on what social strata they represent, and she proves to be a source of comfort for both of them.  Similarly, she has little respect for Lady Sylvia's own lady's maid Lewis (Meg Wynn Owen) because Lewis has no life of her own, spends far too much time kissing up to Lady Sylvia, and is precisely the sort of servant whose self-worth is based on who her employer is.  At one point, Elsie says "Why do we spend our lives living through them?  I mean, look at poor old Lewis.  If her own mother had a heart attack, she'd think it was less important than one of Lady Sylvia's farts."

In essence, Elsie looks at the character of the person she befriends or disdains, not their social status.  She immediately befriends Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), the naive but extremely perceptive lady's maid to the snooty Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), and the two become good friends and confidantes within a short amount of time.  Elsie gives Mary insight into the lives of the upper class characters they work for, as well advises her on the structured class system that the servants abide by below stairs, so that the young girl can develop survival instincts on how to best navigate the challenges of her job.  I enjoy the genuine camaraderie that Emily Watson and Kelly Macdonald have in this movie.  Watson brings an insolent wisdom to Elsie that is incredibly winning, and Macdonald is very touching and sincere as Mary.  Their friendship that develops while being roommates during the course of the several days that the storyline of "Gosford Park" spans reminds me a great deal of the friendship between Joan Prather and Annette O'Toole's beauty contestants in Michael Ritchie's "Smile" (1975), which I have already blogged about.  As with Prather and O'Toole's friendship in that earlier movie, you hope that the Elsie/Mary friendship continues long after this movie ends.  Just like Joan Prather was the main character in "Smile," Kelly Macdonald's Mary is ultimately the main character in "Gosford Park" amidst the gallery of characters all housed under one roof despite the fact that most critics tend to overlook both actresses/characters when the write about both movies.  And just like Annette O'Toole proved to be a good foil for Prather in "Smile" and helps her understand the pitfalls of competing in a beauty contest, Elsie proves to be a good mentor for Mary and helps the young girl develop the self-confidence she needs to hold her own during her stay in Gosford Park.  The Elsie/Mary scenes prove to be the heart and soul of "Gosford Park."

Just as Joan Prather comforted Annette O'Toole in "Smile" when she does not win any preliminary prizes on the first night of the beauty contest, the naive Mary is concerned for Elsie's welfare after the more worldly young woman is fired after defending Sir William at the dinner table when Lady Sylvia insults him in front of the other guests.  Despite Elsie saying she didn't love Sir William, I think she did indeed care about him deeply because she was always sticking up for him with the other servants.  She's one of the few characters (Lady Stockbridge, with whom William had long-lasting feelings with, is the other) who is genuinely saddened after Sir William is murdered.  Many of the other characters are pleased by Sir William's death because it serves their self-interest, but Elsie cared about him unselfishly.  Even the snooty Lady Constance recognizes Elsie's sincerity when she observes, "Aw, it's a pity, really.  I thought it was a good idea to have someone in the house who is actually sorry he's dead."  Despite her wary skepticism, Elsie is a good person who deserves a happy ending in the film.  That's why it's so satisfying when Hollywood-loving film buff Elsie ("I only cut it out for Garbo.  I prefer the American stars.  I think they've got more oomph") gets asked at the end of the movie by Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) if she needs a ride into London in his car.

Weissman came to Gosford Park to do research as he prepares to produce "Charlie Chan in London."  Throughout the movie, we hear about his casting problems when he makes transatlantic phone calls to Hollywood.  Moments before he asks Elsie if she needs a lift, he states that the studio will allow him to cast anyone he wants, even an unknown, to play the English maid in the movie.  We immediately infer that Weissman's invitation to give Elsie a lift is not a come on (he's gay) but to seriously consider giving the unknown and inexperienced English girl a chance to come to Hollywood and become a movie star.  Elsie's discovery reminds me of Barbara Harris's discovery at the end of Altman's own "Nashville."  Just as Elsie's discovery came about due to the death of Sir William, in "Nashville" Harris's Albuquerque is discovered as a new singing star after the reigning queen of country music Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) has been assassinated while performing at a political rally.  Both characters are working class women who unexpectedly get a chance to prove themselves and we are glad to see them make it.  Elsie richly deserves this opportunity, especially since Elsie is rescuing Sir William's unloved dog Pip by taking him with her when she leaves.  She realizes that Weissman's offer is the opportunity to improve her life that Sir William always encouraged her to recognize and make the most of.  Because the real-life movie "Charlie Chan in London" featured a British actress named Elsa Buchanan who played the maid and who worked in movies throughout the 1930s, we can infer that Elsie did indeed go to Hollywood and have a career in movies.  The irony is that her imminent success in Hollywood is a tribute to the much-hated Sir William, as his mentoring and positive influence on Elsie proves to be one of his few redeeming qualities.  It's because of these subtle and richly layered nuances, which only become apparent after repeat viewings, that "Gosford Park" remains as eminently watchable as ever. 

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