Gosford Park (2001)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gosford Park, the 2001 period mystery-comedy directed by Robert Altman and featuring an all-star ensemble cast in a screenplay by future Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes.  Set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, it uses the familiar premise of an Agatha-Christie-style whodunnit as a pretense to explore the complex social structure and interrelationships among the wealthy landed gentry and the servant class that runs their households, exposing the busy undercurrent of secrets and scandals that flows beneath the genteel and proper surface of upper class British society.  One of Altman’s most successful films, it was popular at the box office as well as with most critics, and it received a number of awards and nominations, including an Oscar for Fellowes’ screenplay, Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Ensemble Cast (the rough equivalent of Best Picture) from the SAG Awards.

The film takes its title from the name of the estate on which it is set, owned by Sir William McCordle, where a number of guests gather for a weekend hunting party.  Most are relatives or family associates- Lady McCordle’s sisters and their husbands, daughter Isobel’s suitor, a dowager cousin- but among their midst are also a few strangers, including a Hollywood producer named Weissman and noted film star Ivor Novello.  This elite crowd, however, constitutes a minority of the population here in Gosford Park; the household is crowded with an army of servants, bustling around the clock to serve their masters, and their number is increased by the influx of personal valets and maids who attend the estate’s guests.  As the weekend progresses, rigorous adherence to decorum and tradition dominates the outward appearance of this gathering and its festivities, despite the myriad personal agendas, hidden relationships, false pretenses, secret histories, private resentments, and unseen tragedies that exist behind the scenes.  These underlying dramas are unexpectedly brought to the surface when a murder takes place, prompting the intrusion of the local police inspector whose investigation lays bare many of the dirty little secrets on both sides of the class divide- as well as some which cross that inflexible boundary.  The solution to the mystery, masked beneath layers of assumption, convention, and privilege, may be a simple crime of passion or a calculated act motivated by financial gain- or it may ultimately hinge on the conflict between an unjust social system and the most basic impulses of humanity.

Director Altman was known for his explorations of different subcultures (the military in M*A*S*H, the country music community in Nashville, the Hollywood film industry in The Player), using an interwoven tapestry of characters and events to offer social observation and commentary through the prism of these microcosmic settings; by the time of Gosford Park, his reputation was such that he had no trouble securing the impressive collection of collaborators necessary to bring to life this meticulous recreation of Edwardian country life between the wars.  Screenwriter Fellowes, an actor who had (at the time) never previously authored a screenplay, was approached by the director due to his extensive knowledge of the complex workings of the domestic management of the era and the culture of the serving class upon which it all depended; he wrote a script, and served as the film’s technical advisor as well, allowing him to rewrite and hone portions of his work on the set.  As with most of Altman’s films, some of the dialogue was also improvised during filming, particularly in the scenes involving a large group of actors, lending an authenticity to the sound of the conversations and contributing to the overall feel that we, the audience, are eavesdropping upon the characters’ private lives; even so, under Fellowes’ guidance, the entire, sprawling saga is united with a cohesive singularity of purpose and consistency of style, providing the master director a solid structure upon which to build his own vision.

Altman’s signature format, in which a focused perspective is imposed upon an almost documentary approach to the narrative, at first might seem a bit ill-suited to a costume piece like Gosford Park; we are conditioned by experience to expect a more theatrical presentation in films such as this.  However, the Altman treatment works brilliantly here, particularly given the director’s purpose; like all of his films, Gosford Park is less concerned with plot (though the story is intricately woven and ultimately, very compelling) than it is with its characters and its observations of human behavior.  Like a fly on the wall, we are privy to the public and private interactions of the denizens of this estate and their guests, but these exchanges seem part of a bigger landscape, as if they were individual trees or a babbling brook in a painting of a countryside; in other words, the concerns of the characters are details which contribute to the more significant whole, a complete portrait of a way of life.  The details of a nobleman’s financial schemes or backstairs dalliances are granted no more importance than the polishing of the silver for dinner service; indeed, the mundane details of this rarefied lifestyle are far more interesting to Altman than the various worldly concerns of the characters, and, thanks to his careful choices in focus, he makes them so for us, too.

In keeping with his detached observational technique, the director similarly places emphasis on the intricacies of his characters’ behavior and personalities.  Each individual is seen in relation to the others, illuminating their social roles and the subtleties of the relationships between the various subdivisions, even within the two primary groups.  Money, status, seniority, tradition, convention- all these and more play a part in determining the “pecking order,” and the rules of this rigid structure far outweigh any considerations based on emotion or concern for humanity; there is no tolerance for those who forget or disguise their rightful place in the order of things, and the public display of passion, particularly when it crosses the sacred class boundaries by which the entire cultural system is governed, is a greater transgression of decency and decorum than a discreetly-executed murder.  It is this obsession with maintaining appearances, of keeping all the warts and wrinkles of being human out of sight at all cost, that ultimately emerges as the over-reaching theme of Gosford Park; it is also seen, by microcosmic implication, as the mechanism for the looming downfall of this ponderous, antiquated way of life- for in the deeply buried untidiness of past scandal lies the seed of the consequence which rises from the well-hidden, forgotten depths to strike a blow against the entrenched injustice of the entire system.  In this way, despite its almost reverent depiction of an ultra-conservative world in which even the most downtrodden are contemptuous of change, Gosford Park manages to echo the anti-establishment sentiment usually associated with Altman’s work.

Such socio-political conclusions are left, however, to be drawn (or not) by the viewer; Altman adopts an objective eye, almost like a field researcher doing an anthropological study.  He records the events of the weekend with a slowly moving camera, lingering here or there to pick up an interesting detail or reveal a fact which might not be apparent to the passing eye, and trusting Fellowes’ words to carry the narrative, along with any thematic elements that may be present.  Of course, it falls to the cast to bring life to the script and give the director the behaviors with which to fill his lens; and the collection of superb actors on display in Gosford Park does so magnificently, capturing every subtle nuance of their roles and deftly providing an ocean of subtext without ever disturbing the naturalistic atmosphere that is Altman’s milieu.  Most of these players are experienced in theatre, which serves them well as Altman allows his focus to move freely amongst the characters the way the eye travels around the stage at a live performance; as they conduct their conversations, steal their glances at each other, clear the table, pour the sherry, and all the other living activities on display at a dinner party, the audience may or may not be watching- they must be “on” at all times, regardless.  They speak realistically, often overlapping dialogue and talking simultaneously, as Altman shrewdly hovers just long enough to permit us to hear the crucial bits; and in the smaller scenes, depicting the private moments spent alone or in pairs, though the emphasis is often on what is seen and what is left unsaid rather than what is spoken, the vital information is communicated, nevertheless, through the minutest of gestures and expressions.  It’s an impressive collection of performances, one of the finest examples of true ensemble screen acting in recent memory.

This incomparable cast includes a mix of actors, from the legendary to the unknown, all of whom deliver exemplary performances; a few stand out, deserving special nods, not so much because they are superior but because their roles give them the chance to shine individually. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the always delicious Maggie Smith as a snobbish and acid-tongued dowager countess (foreshadowing her Emmy-winning role in Fellowes’ wildly successful Downton Abbey series a decade later); Helen Mirren exudes the anonymous perfectionism and the crisp, selfless honor of a lifetime in service, and late in the film releases an unforgettable flood of repressed humanity that drives home everything Gosford Park is about; Michael Gambon, as the misanthropic lord of the manor, and Kristin Scott-Thomas, as his icy and discontented wife, personify the insulated ennui of the inconceivably wealthy-and-powerful upper class; Stephen Fry has a remarkable turn as the police inspector, turning the familiar stock character of this genre on its ear by being dull and sycophantic instead of brilliant and unflappable; Emily Watson gives us a portrait of youth and good nature being bent by servitude towards frustration, bitterness and cynicism, putting a human face on the socially-sanctioned exploitation of the serving class; and relative newcomer Kelly Macdonald is charming and likable as the deceptively naive young ladies’ maid who provides our window of access into the austere and intimidating world of the film.  Also lending the weight of their presence are such thespian luminaries as Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, and Charles Dance; a newer generation asserts itself through the work of Clive Owen and Jeremy Northam, and representing the American contingent are the stalwart Bob Balaban and the handsome Ryan Phillippe, as the film producer and his valet, respectively, present for the purpose of researching an upcoming movie project and concealing a number of secrets in their own right.

The three-way combination of director, screenwriter, and cast is supported by a top-notch assembly of technical and visual elements; filmed on location at several authentic English country houses and a painstakingly constructed soundstage set at Shepperton Studios, the atmosphere of Gosford Park is so completely realized that we are wholly transported to this bygone place and time.  The sumptuous production design executed under the supervision of the director’s son, Stephen Altman, and the dazzling array of costumes, designed by Jenny Beavan, all captured by the rich cinematography of Andrew Dunn- these contributions help to make the movie a total immersion in the period it portrays.  Completing the effect is the wistfully nostalgic score by Patrick Doyle, evoking the sadness of a dying age, and rounded out by the inclusion of several songs by the real-life Ivor Novello, performed exquisitely by actor Northam, both on camera and off.

With the popularity of the aforementioned Downton Abbey, many will no doubt be drawn to this previous work by its author; it should be noted that, though the intricacies of English country life are depicted with the same painstaking accuracy as in Gosford Park, the tone here is much different than in the hit series.  Altman’s style and purpose are far removed from the tone of fond admiration which pervades Downton, and his characters are less likely to incur our affections and loyalties than those to be found on Lord Grantham’s estate.  As with all of the director’s work, Gosford Park is not for every taste- the cool detachment, the oddly stylized naturalism, the oblique and almost passive-aggressive social criticism, the ironic and oh-so-dry humor, and- perhaps most of all- the constantly roving focus that makes it difficult to anchor one’s emotional perspective in the story; these are all common obstacles for many viewers who dislike Robert Altman films, and they are certainly present here.  Conversely, fans of the director’s work may be turned off by the movie’s cloistered atmosphere, a far cry from the more free-wheeling, overtly colorful setting of his usual, decidedly American subjects.  Nevertheless, Gosford Park is one of Altman’s most accessible pictures, appealing to a wide range of audiences that might not otherwise be appreciative of his sometimes obtuse approach.  In some ways his most atypical project, and in others a quintessentially Altman creation, it cannot be termed his masterpiece, by any means, but it must be ranked highly in his canon as one of his most successful films in terms of overall accomplishment of its intended goals.  Taken independently from Altman’s other work, it certainly stands as a prime example of what can happen when style, content, and execution come together so coherently that the end result is as polished and nearly perfect as a film can be.  For my part, Gosford Park is the kind of movie that makes me remember why I love movies; even if it’s not your cup of tea (to use an apt expression), it’s worth a look just to see what happens when genuine cinematic teamwork makes all the pieces fit as neatly as a good butler’s tuxedo.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280707/

From Hell (2001)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: From Hell, the 2001 screen adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s award-winning serialized graphic novel exploring the real-life Jack the Ripper case through a fictionalized story about its investigation, starring Johnny Depp as the Scotland Yard Inspector in charge of the case.  As directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, it condenses the 500-plus page original to fit a running time of less than two hours, omitting much of the book’s rich, immersive material in the process, effectively transforming the piece from an informed- if dark- historical fantasia into a pop-art horror movie with pseudo-sociopolitical overtones.  Nevertheless, taken on its own merits, it’s a stylish and intelligent thriller, offering a fairly accurate (though highly speculative and sensationalistic) depiction of perhaps the most infamous true crime story of all time, as well as an excursion into the dark underbelly of Victorian London.

Adapted into screenplay form by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, From Hell blends fact and fiction as it unfolds its narrative, set mostly in London’s seedy Whitechapel District in the fall of 1888.  It’s a miserable, economically depressed slum, populated by rough laborers, criminals, and prostitutes- the latter of who are being savagely killed in a series of increasingly macabre and horrific murders.  In charge of the investigation is Frederick Abberline, an opium-addicted police inspector with a gift for psychic visions; his prescient insights into the case bring him to suspect an even darker and more insidious motive to the crimes than is suggested by their brutality, as well as leading to his personal involvement with one of the Ripper’s potential victims.  As he gets closer to the truth, he finds himself enmeshed in a dangerous web of secret intrigue, racing against time and facing powerful opposition in a desperate effort to prevent the monstrous killer from claiming more lives- including his own.  The plot unfolds against a backdrop of late 19th-Century English society, offering a bleak and politically-charged vision of a world in which disrupting the illusion of propriety is a greater crime than murder; the privileged elite exist outside and above the law, orchestrating and manipulating events from behind closed doors while the impoverished masses endure an unthinkably cruel and desperate existence with little hope of escape or betterment, and even those sympathetic to their plight are powerless to help them.

Moore and Campbell engaged in painstaking research in the creation of their graphic novel, meticulously incorporating the facts of the Jack the Ripper case into their multi-layered fictional retelling.  That effort is reflected in the film, though in a somewhat diluted form; on the page, the historical facts are presented side by side with the story, making for an immersive experience in which the reader can participate in the process of speculative myth-making, whereas for obvious reasons this cannot be duplicated onscreen without disrupting the visual (and emotional) flow.  In addition, the panoramic view of Victorian society offered by the original has been necessarily stripped down; though the filmmakers have clearly made an effort to provide as much of this background as possible, their running time dictates the removal of all but the most cogent information.  An unfortunate side effect of this streamlining is that key plot points, which might have been better masked in a more comprehensive script, become painfully obvious, making the film highly predictable to savvy viewers, particularly those familiar to the true events of the Ripper case.  It can be argued, however, that the film’s purpose is not to puzzle us with its mystery- which is well-known as an unsolved and probably unsolvable case- but to offer a social commentary by using its plot and its setting to parallel our modern world.

To this end, the Hughes Brothers sculpt their film to highlight the disparity between the upper strata of the Victorian population and the impoverished lower classes amongst whom the Ripper’s crimes take place.  The wealthy are isolated, arrogant, and dismissive of the concerns of the less fortunate, while the poor, in their struggle to survive, are greedy, opportunistic, and cruel.  It’s not a pretty picture of mankind, and there are few examples of middle class decency on display- only Abberline and his Shakespeare-quoting sergeant represent a compassionate view towards humanity, and even they are characterized by a mistrustful cynicism which reflects their exposure to the harsh realities of the age.  The nobility and their bureaucratic allies are portrayed as smug, self-appointed guardians of a status quo that favors their continuing prosperity, and many of them seem possessed of a sadistic streak, exhibiting an unmistakable delight in their infliction of suffering and the exercise of their power over the weak.  Each and every member of the ruling class is portrayed as contemptuous of the poor, even those who seem, on the surface, to be more enlightened, and the underprivileged commoners beneath them are shown to have suppressed any noble sentiments in favor of self-preservational hostility and practical amorality.  Providing illumination on this ugly portrait of mankind at its worst, the directors give us an unvarnished look at the wretched conditions of existence to which these masses are subject- the filth, the corruption, the continual struggle for inadequate food and shelter- and the opposing luxury with which their economic superiors surround themselves.

From a visual standpoint, the Hughes Brothers make their objective clear from their opening shot, which pans down slowly from an austere London skyline at dusk, offering glimpses of the various strata of society through their lighted windows until it reaches the dark and squalid streets of Whitechapel, where an assortment of dehumanizing activities are plainly on view.  The pair also take pains to recreate the dramatic visual atmosphere of the comic book format, reconstructing the composition of panels from the original and utilizing a color palette which conjures memories of the lurid English horror classics from the fifties and sixties- many of which share a similar setting and were clearly inspired by the lingering cultural memory of the Ripper’s reign of terror.  However, although these iconic forbears were noted for reveling in an almost gleeful depiction of blood and gore, From Hell is relatively short on explicit violence, though there are certainly enough glimpses of horrific acts and their aftermath to create the impression of having witnessed a bloodbath.  Similarly, despite its title (a reference to a letter sent by the real-life Ripper to taunt the police), the film is not a supernatural fright fest, though there is a not-so-subtle implication of a dark, possibly otherworldly force at work behind the killings; this is no tale of demons at large, wreaking havoc on a weak but innocent humanity, but an indictment of mankind at its basest and the depths to which it will sink in order to preserve its own selfish desires.  Ultimately, From Hell aims to derive its real horror from the implications of its clearly-stated premise- that the gruesome career of Jack the Ripper is but a prelude to the larger scale horrors that await in the coming century, the tip of an iceberg formed by the clandestine machinations of the world’s tightly-knit power elite.

This darkly cynical sociopolitical viewpoint is familiar to anyone familiar with Alan Moore, whose somewhat radical sensibilities are plainly displayed in such other of his works as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, as well as his contributions to the Batman series.  While his leanings certainly come across in this screen adaptation, however, their effectiveness is certainly limited by its narrower focus.  Where the published work is overwhelmingly centered on his postulated notion of the killings as a symptom of a far-reaching social imbalance, supported by an interwoven tapestry of peripheral events which underline and reinforce his theme, the screen version fails to bring home the significance of this element, treating it more as a necessary conceit of the plot than as the main purpose towards which that plot is geared.  Though the writers and directors have clearly understood their task, and made considerable effort to stress the relevance of Moore’s allegorical subtext in their realization of his piece, they are ultimately defeated by the need to provide a Hollywood-style, story-driven thriller; the cold-hearted patrician gentry and the need-driven proletarian rabble are present, but the broad strokes with which they are painted render them clichéd, stock figures of the Grand-Guignol horror genre from which the film takes its cue, and the numerous scenes of social injustice and economic inequality come off as obligatory, the kind of standard fare usually found in dramas set in this period- and often presented with more conviction than we see here.  Coupled with the aforementioned predictability of the plot, the familiarity of these elements help to make From Hell feel like something we’ve seen before.

Though the film doesn’t quite live up to its potential, the actors acquit themselves admirably.  Johnny Depp is shrewdly cast as Abberline, who in real life was described by his colleagues as a highly capable officer with the demeanor of a mild-mannered bank clerk, though here he is portrayed as a decidedly more unorthodox figure, somewhat dissolute and highly unorthodox in his methods; Depp provides a perfect access point for a modern viewer, bringing a highly contemporary persona into the proceedings and providing his customary intelligence and commitment to the role, and if he sometimes seems to be sleepwalking through the film, this adds an appropriate layer of detachment to a character who is, after all, a drug addict and a visionary.  Heather Graham also brings a modern feel to her performance, though in this case it feels a bit less appropriate- she plays a prostitute who lives on the streets, and her level of intelligence and sensitivity seems a bit anachronistic; this is true of the portrayal of all the streetwalkers in the film, but in Graham’s case, given the conceit of her highly fictionalized role, it’s an acceptable disparity, and she succeeds in being likable and sympathetic in the midst of a cast of unpleasant characters.  The two stars, however, are ultimately less memorable than the host of fine British character actors who fill the supporting roles.  Particularly noteworthy are veteran character actor Ian Holm as gentleman doctor who assists Abberline in the case by providing his medical knowledge, and who may in fact possess more information than he is willing to share; and the always delightful Robbie Coltrane as the gruff but good-natured sergeant who serves as Abberline’s loyal assistant and friend.  The remainder of the cast get little chance to flesh out their characters, most of which come off as little more than ciphers in service of the story, but for the most part, they perform their tasks with a relish which goes a long way towards making the world of the movie seem believable, if not particularly compelling.

Despite the fact that it falls short of its considerable potential, From Hell is not a bad movie; it succeeds on a number of levels, not the least of which is providing a fairly gripping two hours of suspenseful- if unsurprising- entertainment.  It takes an oft-seen scenario and presents it in a form that both pays homage to the style of its former, more traditional incarnations and refreshes it with a modern and distinctive flavor of its own.  If it fails to capture the full power and ambitious scope of its source material, that is perhaps no surprise; Moore and Campbell’s creation is a complex work of art that is inherently best served by the medium in which it was first presented, and it is doubtful that any film could capture it faithfully without falling short on some level.  Nevertheless, it is a brave attempt, and if nothing else, it certainly provides inspiration for viewers to seek out the graphic novel and experience its brilliance for themselves.  Beyond that, it is a well-made, if ultimately ordinary, thriller, blessed with a talented cast and an impressive visual style; and for those who have an interest in Jack the Ripper and the world in which he existed, it’s a must-see, and as long as you don’t expect to learn anything new about the case (and you don’t mind seeing a long-disproved theory being put forward once again), you’ll probably find it a worthy rendering of this legendary chapter in the annals of human brutality.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120681/