All our (Gothic) yesterdays - the really special relationship

Rosemary Bechler
24 April 2002

When a mordant satirist of American mores observes the layered intrigues of a 1930s English country house, we are into something far deeper than the Anglo-American heritage industry. Rather, Robert Altman’s subversive comedy of manners draws deliciously on the eighteenth century Gothic novel to convey the most modern, and least cynical, of truths: “there is nothing more important than taking our own lives, and loves, seriously”.

The novelist and chronicler of London’s East End, Iain Sinclair, complaining about the Tinseltown mercenaries of America (“Jack the rip-off”, Observer, 27 January) has been taking the Hughes brothers to task for their ghetto story rendition of Ripper London in From Hell. He sees the film as part of a “wave of predatory development that maligns history and treats the past as the final colony in the American world empire.”

What is unanswerable in Sinclair’s clash of civilisations diatribe is the sheer dominance of our cinema screens by what he refers to as this “corporate military/industrial state” using “the most advanced technology known to the western world”. So, Sinclair’s words were ringing in my ears when this year’s London Film Festival opened with a world premiere of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park: “genres: British, comedy, crime, 1930’s”.

Taking their pick of family resemblances between Gosford Park and Ten Little Indians, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Remains of the Day and a Cluedo romp, American reviewers immediately paid tribute to Altman as a grand Old Master. But two months before filming began, Altman had already told Le Figaro to its face that Gosford Park was inspired by Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, France, 1939). Colonise that masterpiece of the French cinema, and you would be within striking distance of the Taj Mahal of western civilisation – Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro!

I became intrigued. Why court comparison with one of the greatest motion pictures of all time?

La Regle du Jeu, after all, practically fought the class system. It fought against, if not in, the Second World War! It was banned for being demoralising by the Vichy government, before being banned again by the Nazis. Renoir himself was put on the Nazis’ extermination list for his progressive politics and left for that relatively oblivious haven, the USA – the year after it was made.

Whatever was Altman up to? So I went to see Gosford Park; and everything got more complicated.

Gosford Park

There is an altogether superior, genre-busting, reality effect in La Regle du Jeu, made almost on the eve of the Second World War. Upper class mores – shadowy negatives of heroism, love, honour, patriotism, duty – are undergoing a last convulsive twitch. Both the house party and the hunt with which the protagonists have elected to entertain themselves are dying genres, cast into relief by the natural habitat which surrounds them.

Altman has picked 1932 as a time balanced between knowledge and ignorance, when a clearly dysfunctional system has precisely not yet been given the red light. Gosford Park ends where it began, with people piling into carriages, while the band plays Ivor Novello’s Land of Might Have Been as the gentlest of reproaches. Like Jeremy Northam’s nicely modulated Novello, it is directed not to the human condition, but to a particular bunch of people who could have behaved better.

For Gosford Park above all is a comedy of manners. There is desire. Altman deploys his own framing device to show the cramping effects of social convention, whether we are in the chandeliered, high-ceilinged rooms above stairs, or the low-ceilinged, glass-partitioned servants’ quarters which underpin them. But here, the house is one big social organism and what is housed is a Freudian family romance.

What happens above stairs is the result of the return of a repressed which dwells in the cavernous underbelly of the servants’ quarters. Helen Mirren brilliantly performs this catharsis in a Mrs. Danvers-like turn as the lonely head house-keeper Mrs. Wilson, in a way which is then beautifully reprised, modernised and redeemed by her son. The rightful heirs of Gosford Park are characters called Parks and Crofts. Everything interesting has a local human habitation and a name.

The houseparty’s three outsiders either make a living from impersonating the hoi polloi as Northam playing the real-life musical icon, Ivor Novello, wryly informs his American friend. Or, in the case of Hollywood film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), are doing research for a murder mystery set in an English country house. Britain itself is the grisly real behind these genres, an historic repository for the real class act.

Altman’s grouse-shooting party reaches for its daring Renoir comparison, but doesn’t overdo it. Instead of an Olympian stand-off between man and nature, Altman’s scene, scattered by banging guns and the thud of dead birds, is shot from a fragile vegetarian perspective. In his hall of mirrors of fiction and reality, this claim becomes yet another good joke, told with enough panache to suggest that this work, in its own more limited way, might simply be great art too. But if so: what kind?

Northanger Abbey

Those film reviewers need only have cast their nets a little further back – (Gosford – gossip – Gothic?) – for the perfect model, the eighteenth century English Gothic novel, with its metamorphoses and “new models of personhood” (Marina Warner); its castle and villain burdened by a past secret sin which threatens to erupt anew when their unquiet peace is disturbed by the blundering curiosity of a young and innocent Gothic heroine.

Altman’s film is a legitimate descendant of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1798) in the best sense, taking the generic material of the past and fashioning it into something equally subversive for the present.

Divided as they are by two centuries, these are both late works in the classic Gothic novel genre. And Altman’s Gothic heroines, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald) and Mabel Nesbitt (Claudia Blakley) – trust him to have two – share something unique with the heroine of Northanger Abbey.

Unlike her Gothic predecessors, Catherine Morland does not recoil in despair from the precincts of her all too English Gothic castle, but has an unheroine-like ( and rather readerly) desire to get there: ‘‘As they drew near the end of the journey, her impatience for a sight of the abbey returned in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its glossy walls of grey stone Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney ’’.

The secret sin

So as the film opens, we are cowering in the rain with the meek Scots maid, Mary (Kelly Macdonald), waiting for the Countess of Trentham to set out to Gosford Park. Mary has no Henry Tilney for now. But she is allowed an encounter with the real-life celebrity, Ivor Novello (“Ivor Novello spoke to me!”) – which heightens her expectation, together with her gullibility in our eyes. She is game for the adventure in hand and Altman gives her (and us as well) every tantalising bend in the road.

In a classic Gothic novel we approach the foreign castle as innocent strangers. Sucked into its seductive Gothic interior, initial uncertainty gives way to a much more threatening muddle between past and present, guilt and innocence, high and low society, which seems to involve our own best hopes and worst fears. A secret sin is discovered which threatens to be repeated – and it takes much rescue and denial to deliver us safely once again into the daylight world from whence we came. Nevertheless, almost invariably, a happy ending follows where the battle between a knowledge which has become vindictive and true love across social barriers, is resolved in favour of the latter.

Any Gothic heroine, when approaching the Gothic castle, should have very little knowledge indeed of the world she is entering. All the more so, if she has a strong inclination for romance. By these standards, Mary starts off in a more secure position than her eighteenth century role-model. Not only has she not been invited, but until Novello says “Hello”, she is a much rained upon, but universally ignored lady’s maid.

Yet we know that this is her trip to Gosford Park as much as anyone else’s – an expectation that makes the bends in the road that little bit more dangerous, and exciting. “I shall have to watch you, my girl, I can see”, the head housemaid (Emily Watson) indulgently teases Mary, in the way that innocent heroines have been watched over for centuries – to very little avail.

And of course, almost immediately upon arrival, Mary gets lost in the castle’s labyrinths. This first time is a dress rehearsal. She ends up, harmlessly enough, in the clutches of an American actor (Ryan Philippe) – an occupation cheerfully described by Lord Stockbridge’s cynical valet (Clive Owen) as “worse than being a murderer” – who is posing as Weissman’s valet in a Scots accent Mary knows is fake, and breaking all the Upstairs, Downstairs rules (and every other code of conduct) in the process. Setting aside the dizzying play here on real American actors and real Scot accents – like Catherine Morland, Mary’s first encounters with the Gothic are fake ones.

Ryan Philippe, androgynous heart-throb though he is, knows nothing about love. What is to happen to Mary later in the same room, will be vastly superior both in passion and in subversive Gothic truth. By that time, she will be tortured in the time-honoured fashion for Gothic heroines. For even the meekest Gothic heroines end up wanting to know the secret. Take, for example, Mrs. Radcliffe’s Emily in the Mysteries of Udolpho (1794):

‘ “Oh could I know” said she to herself, “what passes in that mind; could I know the thoughts, that are known there, I should no longer be condemned to this torturing suspense!” ’

Mary’s second, real encounter – with the Gothic past, the secret sin, and one’s own desire – boldly updates the eclaircissement scene in Northanger Abbey, where Henry discovers that Catherine suspects his father the General of matricide. Mary will raise her eyes to her Gothic hero in exactly the same way that Catherine Morland did two hundred years previously:

‘ ‘‘You infer perhaps the probability of some negligence – some – (involuntarily she shook her head) – or it may be – of something still less pardonable.” She raised her eyes towards him more fully than she had even done before ’

It is a curious moment, since it is an encounter which officially lowers the heroine in our estimation. Yet, as the lovers look at each other properly for the first time, they have become equals. To Henry’s knowledge of the world, Catherine brings her Gothic truths – truths which, by the end of Northanger Abbey appear to have rather more going for them than his masculine good sense. It is the latter, however, which brings this scene to an end:

‘ “If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horrors as I have hardly words to – Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which you live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” ’

In Gosford Park, the returned gaze, precondition for true love, is the same – “I’ve been wanting to do that since I first set eyes on you”, says today’s Gothic hero in his own version of closure. But everything else has moved on. Christian England has been invaded by working class, gay, Jewish, American and thespian outsiders. Moreover, its murder victim is the patriarch himself and his son, suspect number one.

But, no-one gives a damn. Instead, almost overnight in Altman’s servants’ quarters, the past revealed, with all its terrible malpractices and social injustices, simply ceases to exert its hold over us.

Does it then follow that we are left with nothing but an ‘airy bit of trifle’? Not so. What Mary now knows – who she loves, who killed William McCordle, why, and whether it matters – is subversive enough. As for us – at the expense of those among the dramatis personae who applaud military bravery or otherwise rely on the fortunes made by war, what we have learnt is that there is nothing more important than taking our own lives, and loves, seriously. Even without a change of order, love can prevail over power abused – bitchiness, bullying, neglect and violence. There is really nothing more important than that life goes on

Gothic pasts and presents

It is not just our heroine who becomes visible as she learns to know herself. In fact, Altman’s thoroughly modern variation on the theme of the reluctant heroine being carried half-fainting into the Gothic castle, is the veritable stampede of servants and butlers, maids and valets into the cavernous interior of Gosford Park in the film’s opening sequence.

This is the opposite of wimpish. It is a class invasion. Nor does it stop there. Visit the website, and it appears that we are all invited to join in the revelry. “Tea at four, dinner at eight, murder at midnight ” is pinned by a fountain pen to the back of an anonymous manservant, while a command to Enter is slapped cavalierly on the Gothic castle’s front door.

We might expect “Everyone” to have “something to hide”, as Constance avers. But everyone to have a bottle of poison in their room (as Andrew Dunn’s prowling camera discovers)? It is a miracle that McCordle is only murdered twice.

Moreover everyone loves to gossip. Here another time-honoured Altman technique of interweaving image and overheard dialogue, is transformed from a spicy ruling class pastime into a veritable system of education.

And a liberation. Altman’s commitment to improvisation emancipates the free energies of his tremendous cast. By the time Elsie betrays herself and everyone else with her shockingly involuntary outburst at dinner, we have learnt to track these energies which escape through the cracks in the system: from covert glances, sighs, losses of command and whiplash repartee, to Kristin Scott-Thomas’ deliciously light comic timing, a Bloody Mary smashed on the floor of the rotunda, or Maggie Smith’s deeply satisfied, sadistic chortle.

We have got it down to the fine art that it is, when Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) blunders into the frame: the only man in the entire film incapable of learning anything. It is his role to show us just how far these liberties and equalities have brought us from the imprisonments above and below stairs past and present, the sweatshops and work-houses, the corsetry and claustrophobic hypocrisy of scripts, costumes and sets.

He walks in to solve a murder, not noticing that we have already had a palace revolution.

The really special relationship

Gosford Park uses the past to take a fresh run at the present.

At first, we notice only the deadening hand of tradition and hierarchy, of upstairs reflected in downstairs. But this world is unravelling, aided by Altman’s egalitarian camera. As if to underscore the point, the cast list, the cream of British Actors’ Equity, sports no less than four stage aristocrats, Dames Smith and Atkins, Sirs Gambon and Jacobi – three of whom are deployed below stairs. Moreover, the presence of Eileen Atkins (Crofts), who co-created Upstairs, Downstairs is a Gosford Park in-joke only in the sense that everyone knows about it. So there are powerful forces for change – creative spirits – lurking below stairs, reminding us that this order will be swept away.

But there is a warning too. Long before Elsie asks herself why they should live their lives through these Gosford dinosaurs, another order entirely threatens to take its place. It is Ivor Novello’s songs which set the young Mary’s and young Mabel’s hearts beating. Women’s magazines, Charlie Chan movies and movie pin-ups are creeping into those romantic cavities. Slowly but surely, in the art forms which revolve around the British upper crust, including a deferential enough Hollywood in its early days – this land-of-might-have-been-but-probably-never-was is giving way to a new, mass celebrity culture.

Enter Bob Balaban, co-originator of Gosford Park, playing an MGM film producer. Altman’s representative in the text, he is not called Weissman (wise/vice man) for nothing.

Initially, Weissman is a hoot. Completely oblivious of the murderous mayhem around him, his continuous background telephone calls to California escalate in self-absorption, until the moment when a lengthy and excited directive about why the valet is best-placed to have committed the murder in his movie coincides with McCordle’s appalled and grieving valet, Probert (Jacobi) tip-toeing across the front of the screen to the corpse in the library – the real scene of the crime.

We can laugh, but we have the strangest feeling that we might yet laugh on the other side of our faces. For isn’t the loyal real valet – who is on his way out – already only significant as the idea for a script? We can almost feel the darkened foreground swapping places with the future, a leaching of the real in favour of the fictions which will outlive it. So, who is impersonating whom?

If McCordle is dead, where does power and reality now reside? Who, after all, has brought together the finest collection of British acting talent ever assembled on the silver screen? Who, as the Guardian put it, “called in a toff” – Julian Fellowes – Ampleforth, Cambridge, Monarch of the Glen – to write his script for him?

It is in the nature of the Gothic genre, while it seems preoccupied with a distant feudal past, to save its most subversive truths for the present day. Altman serves up an alternative whodunit? to which the answer, in more ways than one, is that it took an American to do it.

As Julian Fellowes himself comments in a recent Guardian interview:

‘‘I am grateful to Bob (Altman) for all sorts of reasons contemporary Hollywood requires a man of mighty muscle the power of certain stars and Hollywood executives can be compared to the status of noblemen in the ancien regime in eighteenth century France These people have made their way up in a business that makes the Battle of Borodino look like a tea party, and they have come out ahead.”

It is, after all, a curious anecdote for our times, not the 1790s or the 1930s, that just as servants in the past were instructed not to breathe too heavily in front of their masters, so on today’s film sets, extras are sometimes instructed not to look into the eyes of megastars

In this Pop Idol world of ours, we may still hanker to be invited along to the closing night cast party which is all that is left of Gosford Park. But, now we know everything. We have enjoyed the gusto with which these characters, virtuous or malign, play out the parts they have been given in the scheme of things. We have learnt a lesson in self-preservation. Now, don’t we have our own lives and loves to go to?

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