The representation of the relations between the aristocracy and their servants in Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park
An old British mansion, many guests for the weekend, a murder in the library... All these familiar elements of a detective story are present in Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park. In autumn 1932 Sir William Mc Cordle and his wife, Lady Sylvia, invite theirfriends for a shooting party. On this occasion some family secrets are revealed, some hidden emotions burst out and the host finally gets killed.
However, Gosford Park is not an adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s novels. Contrary to her works, here the murder mystery serves as a good opportunity to observe some members of the English aristocracy and their servants and also the interactionsbetween these two worlds.
These interactions are comlex, sometimes amibguous, and far from ideal. Stephen Holden in his article Full of Baronial Splendour and Hatefullnes makes a comparison between Gosford Park and Upstairs Downstairs, calling the latter ‘a reassuring Edwardian soap opera in which the beneficent ruling class dispensed noblesse oblige to the true-blue servants, and everybody wasreasonably settled and happy.’ Robert Altman’s film, on the contrary, ‘portrays a similar milieu as a Darwinian shark tank of money grubbing, social climbing and scurrilous gossip in which upstairs and downstairs are treacherously intertwined.’(Holden: 1)
In fact, the lower class is presented in a much more favorable light than their ‘superiors’, who should be role models, their source of moralityand wisdom.
The aristocrats in the film are in decline. Most of them are impoverished and pathetic. The host made a fortune on industry and thus was able to join the ranks of aristocrats. They despise him, despite being dependent on his money. His cold and snobbish wife tells him that he behaves like a peasant, the Countess of Trentham (who is Lady Sylvia's aunt) behaves as if she was the queenof England, yet has to ask him to raise her allowance, other relatives constantly ask for money, often using not very gentlemanly methods ( such as blackmail or flattery).
Sir William himself is not an angel. Years before, when he was a factory owner, he would abuse his female workers without any scruples. When they ‘fell in troubles’ as it was euphemistically called, he made them abandon theirbabies. If they did not want to – they lost their jobs. Now, he has an affair with a young maid, Elsie who, in fact, turns out to be one of few people who care for him and are sorry after his death. His wife, when his dead body is found, seems completely unmoved. The very same night she spends with an attractive valet of one of her guests. She does it not to console herself, not out of despair orpassion, but merely out of boredom. (‘Well, life must go on, I suppose. Now help me with this dress.’)
The valet, Henry, is a mysterious character. Speaking with a fake Scottish accent, he pretends to be just an ordinary servant, however his strange behavior makes others suspicious. He tries to seduce (or maybe even rape) some of the maids, yet they all turn him down. He only succeeds with LadySylvia. Later, it is revealed that he is an actor preparing to play a role of a valet. When the truth comes out, he finds himself between the two worlds, belonging to none. The servants treat him as one of the upper class and the upper class look down on him. Even lady Sylvia, who received him in her bedroom when he was only a servant just a night before, now pretends not to see him.
In fact,the servants also look at him with contempt and take every opportunity to manifest it. For example, George, a footman, spills hot coffee on his trousers (choosing the most embarrassing place). This ‘accidents’ causes a lot of laughter not only below stairs, but also in the living room. Lady Trentham laughs to tears.
Henry is treated so coldly because he dared to cross the boundaries between the...