Who Dun It? The Themes of Gosford Park

JULY / AUG 2011: BY RACHEL SEXTON

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The murder mystery has a great tradition in Britain, both in print and on screen. You know the names of the detectives and the tropes of the genre: a large cast of suspects and a big reveal at the end. You even know the classic line, parodied countless times over the years, that “Maybe the butler did it.” But in 2001, a fresh revision of this type of story entertained new audiences. Gosford Park showcases the idea of performance not only through its extensive and talented cast but also in its themes and dialogue of the superb script.

The first thing that should be mentioned about it is the ways it differs from earlier murder mysteries. Writer Julian Fellowes (an actor in period productions like the Aristocrats series) makes sure he gets all the expected details down and then grafts on the added layer of the class-division drama. There are many examples of this in British television as well, such as the classic Upstairs, Downstairs and the recent Downton Abbey (which Fellowes also wrote). The contrast between the lives of the gentry living above stairs with their wealth and entitlement and the servants below stairs with their own power struggles and crises, is a delicious one. Moreover, the drama provided by it meshes excellently with the tone of a mystery.

And what a mystery it is! In November of 1932, puttering motorcars deposit various guests (along with their servants) at the countryside home of Sir William McCordle, the estate from whence the film derives its title. He and his wife Sylvia lead a staid, polite conversation in one of their many parlors while in the servant’s quarters all is hustle and bustle. Performance as a theme appears at this very early stage when head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson informs each servant that they will be referred to by their employer’s name while staying in the house. It is the first reference to someone being other than what they appear to be. The guests are there for the men to go hunting, but it is a social weekend with dinner and cards and conversation in the evening. They don’t know that Sir William will be both poisoned and stabbed before the next night is out.

Yep… both poisoned and stabbed. Which means we’re looking for two different culprits. Clearly, Sir William had an easy time making enemies, and leading up to his murder the audience learns quite a bit about his secrets. But even more clever about the script is the way it creates subplots that might have a bearing on the murder with only a small amount of dialogue. Most clever of all, however, is the fact that all the clues to the true killer and motive are there for the astute viewer. (A second watching of this film is almost a necessity due to this.) I won’t spoil anything but the resolution here is believable and has real emotional weight.

Even before Mrs. Wilson’s instruction to the staff, acting as an actual profession has an influence on the script as we learn that one of the guests is the real-life famous actor of the time, Ivor Norvello. The actor is a cousin of William’s in the script and he has brought with him another guest, a producer named Morris Wiseman. Through him, the audience gets some of the best one-liners and an even more conspicuous example of the performance theme. Wiseman brings with him his own valet, an attractive, pillow-lipped young man named Henry Denton. When the endearing young Scottish maid, Mary, for the classic snobbish grande dame Lady Trentham says Denton’s Scottish accent is off, it’s the first clue he is concealing something. Later, the truth comes out. When the news makes the servants quarters and someone asks if he’s the murderer, another valet, Robert Parks, responds, “No, worse. He’s an actor.”

Most of the examination  of performance in the script is not quite so overt.  Norvello’s career is briefly touched on in dialogue and played for laughs when Lady Trentham mentions his latest film, The Lodger, by noting that, “It must be disappointing when something just flops like that.” Ivor is very clear-eyed about his place. When Wiseman inquires how he stands these people, Norvello tells him, “You forget: I make my living by impersonating them.” In fact, you could almost assert that he sings for his supper. Literally. One of the joys of the film is the pleasant surprise of Jeremy Northam’s singing voice as he jingles along on the piano to ditties like “That Lovely Land of Might Have Been. The director crafts cinematic drama at its finest when showing scenes of Ivor singing a crescendo as the murder is committed and discovered elsewhere in the huge house.

Northam is, of course, only one of the many staggeringly gifted English actors in this cast. Whether a character is part of the gentry or the staff, the actor who plays them could be the star of their own period drama. The fact that so much of Britain’s talent is gathered together creates an undeniable thrill. It is impossible to single out one or two, but I am partial to the no nonsense warmth of head maid Elsie, played by Emily Watson, and the mesmerizing glance of Owen Wilson as Robert Parks. Harry Potter fans will also appreciate how different Smith’s role here is from the stern Professor McGonagall, and Derek Jacobi is short on screen time but still makes his presence felt. Performance gets no better demonstration than from this cast.

The excellent script of Gosford Park, with its blending of a mystery with the drama of social class, bases its very structure on servants performing a role for their employers. Mrs. Wilson memorably comments on this when she says near the end, “I’m the perfect servant, I have no life.” This is the most ingrained way in which performance appears as a theme in Gosford Park.

Oh, and that famous “butler” line? Yeah, its here, but with a wink. ■

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.

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