Private Viewing: Is it time to once again make movies for the middle-classes?
With ratings winner Downton Abbey about to re-launch itself on the nation’s TV screens, I was inspired to re-watch Gosford Park, writer Julian Fellowes’ big screen predecessor to the series, on DVD this week, writes Andrew Clarke.
At first glance Gosford Park would appear to be a Downton Abbey prototype. It’s the tale of rich folk during the early years of the 20th century and their lives are contrasted with the experiences of their servants below stairs.
But, this is as far as the comparison goes. Thematically and structurally Gosford Park and Downton Abbey are very different beasts. The setting maybe similar but the dramatic effect is entirely different.
Where Downton is cosy and nostalgic, Gosford is sharp and spiky. Downton Abbey is the televisual equivalent of comfort food while Gosford Park is rather like consuming a dice-with-death sushi meal.
Gosford Park isn’t about nostalgia, it’s about putting the world of 1930s country house aristocracy under the microscope. It’s a sharp, remorseless (and hugely entertaining) examination of the upper-classes at play. It’s cutting in a way that Downton Abbey, even at its most dramatic, has never been.
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It’s the similar setting which is deceptive along with the presence of Maggie Smith playing a very similar, audience-pleasing role, which makes the casual observer think the two Julian Fellowes projects are big screen-small screen twins. They’re not. They are distant cousins.
Gosford Park also has an Agatha Christie-style sub-plot about the murder of Sir William McCordle, played with grumpy aplomb by Michael Gambon,
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The murder investigation drives the second-half of the film but it is really just a Hitchcockian McGuffin – it’s just a device to further explore the people who are attending this 1930s shooting party.
During the evening we discover that at least half-a-dozen characters have the motive and the opportunity to have committed the dark deed.
The film is played with a light touch but the more you lose yourself in it, the more complex it becomes.
You swiftly realise that this isn’t a world of carefree privilege. The Wall Street Crash, the after-effects of the First World War and the General Strike had the combined effect of making the aristocracy a lot less secure than they had been even 50 years earlier.
In Gosford Park their businesses are shown to be failing, for many money is tight and yet they are desperate to cling on to their expensive lifestyles.
Gosford’s observational slant comes courtesy of legendary indie director Robert Altman who let the actors overlap dialogue and used the mixing process to boost key moments of dialogue which had the effect of allowing the audience to eavesdrop on revealing conversations.
Downton Abbey doesn’t have that dark, slightly unsettling edge – that investigative drive which powers Gosford Park’s narrative.
Stephen Fry, who plays the hapless detective trying to solve Sir William’s murder, has observed that the film reveals that the aristocracy need their servants in order to function.
In a bizarre twist, those same servants are seen to embrace the strict ranking of the aristocracy in their own dining arrangements.
The butler, Jennings, played by Alan Bates sits at the top of the table, and the rest are arranged by the social standing of their employer.
It’s also interesting that entertainers, even though they may come from titled families, like Ivor Novello, are still expected to sing for their supper.
The success of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey adds weight to an argument that has been aired this week at the Toronto Film Festival that the world needs more so-called Middle-Class Movies.
There is a lack of mid-scale movies and literary adaptations which used to fuel British cinema and used to win awards around the world.
London-based film-maker Tom Greens said that intelligent movies about ordinary people were not being made any more.
“Middle-class people are making films about the working class or gangs or drug dealers on council estates.”
Elaine Constantine also complained about the British film industry being afraid to make a film that wouldn’t appeal to the American market. “We’re playing poor relative to the US market,” she said.
Maybe it’s time to have the courage of our convictions and make films which reflect the complexity of our society and the richness of our history. Chances are the Americans would probably love it because it was so British.