In his book Art and Its Objects, British philosopher Richard A. Wollheim wrote that the question “What is art” is one of the “most elusive” problems of human culture (1). Not only are art expressions of creativity, but they also serve as tools for the promotion of beliefs and ideology; this is equally true for paintings and music as it is for films. Indeed, the film Gosford Park (2001) harmoniously unites the elements of entertainment and communication to result in a work of art that is both engaging and thought provoking. Through the depiction of tensions and interdependence between the upstairs aristocrats and the downstairs servant class, the film presents itself as a metaphor for the “vast social chasm that has opened up in the contemporary [American] society.” (Walsh)
Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman, tells the story of a murder that took place at an English country house. The film begins with the Countess of Trentham and her lady’s maid, Mary Maceachran. Due to the demanding nature of Lady Trentham, Mary is soaked in the rain three times in the first five minutes of the film. (Altman) This foreshadows the tension we will witness between servants and their employers.
The aristocrats’ dependency on the servant for daily activity is easy to see. Not only do the aristocrats require the servants for laborious tasks such as carrying the luggage, cooking, and washing, they also need the servants for things as simple as opening a bottle, or putting on a necklace. Stephen Fry, the actor who plays Inspector Thompson in the film describes this dependency by the “grown, adult, rich, people” on the servant class for the most basic tasks in life as simply “ridiculous” (Miller).
The aristocrats also need the servants as a demonstration of their social status. We see this when Mabel reveals to Countess of Trentham that she doesn’t have a maid. Trentham gave a look of mixed surprise and disgust. This suggests that, according to the social convention, for a woman to not have a maid is something shameful. As Trentham turns away to talk to Lady Sylvia instead, Freddy quickly takes Mabel away and scolds her in the hallway, reaffirming Mabel’s breach of conventions.
Even the servants seem to endorse the idea that the lack of a maid makes Mabel less respectable. When Elsie expresses her dislike for Mabel’s machine made dress, one of the servants replied “what do you expect of a woman without a maid?” While another servant quotes Lady Lavinia about how a woman without a maid is a woman who has lost her self-respect. Incidentally, the family with the most servants is also none other than the McCordle family whom everyone has come to seek help.
Furthermore, the aristocrats depend on their servants for companionship. Despite seeming friendly on the surface, the aristocrats are generally quite weary of one another. As a result, the only companions they trust are the servants. We are told that Sir William has had numerous relationships with workers from his factory, and we learn that he is having an affair with Elsie; presumably due to his strained relationship with his wife Lady Sylvia, who starts an affair with Henry Denton. Similarly, Iso
On the other hand, the servants are dependents on their employers for their livelihood. In an interview, Altman described how most people went into service and stayed with the same employer their entire life. Despite what looks to be hardship by today’s standard, parents back then are generally “thrilled” to have their children go into service (Walsh), because it meant they would live in a warm house with plenty of food (Evans 72). This is depicted in the film during the scene where Meredith’s velvet suddenly goes quiet when asked why he doesn’t just hand in his notice if he thinks his employer is “pathetic” (Altman). This implies that though a servant may not like their employer, they still recognize that they’ve got a very good job. Not to mention, the alternative to having a job was, at the time, often starvation.bel would complain to Elsie about Freddy, and Anthony Meredith would confide in Dorothy about the unfairness of life. Their inability to form relationship with one another could be because, as depicted in the scene where Isobel cries after Sir William’s death and no one tries to comfort her, the rich simply do not care about people other aristocrats (Altman).
The servants also gain an extra identity when they serve their employers (Rosenbaum). In the film, we see the servants downstairs being addressed by their employers’ name. Before they became a servant, they were nobody. Now that they are serving, they get the honour to be the maid of a Trentham, the velvet of a McCordle, and sometimes even be addressed as such. This pride in the new identity is confirmed when Mary tells Robert about how now that she is a Lady’s maid, she should be addressed as Maceachran, followed by a look of disappointment when explaining how she is still called “Mary” anyway because Lady Trentham can’t pronounce her name.
The new identity also affects how the servants are treated by other servants. Throughout the course of the film, we see that the social hierarchy of the servants is equally, if not more complex than the aristocrats (Pidduck 128). We see this hierarchy in practice during the dinner scene where Mary was given the place of honour because her employer was a Countess. Much like how having servants demonstrates the aristocrats’ social status, being able to serve also demonstrates the worth of a servant.
Despite the interdependence, much tension exists between the aristocrats and the servant class. For a start, to the employers, the servants are practically non-human. When George interrupts Freddy and Isobel at an intimate moment, Freddy reassures Isobel that “It’s nobody”. Later, after the murder of Sir William, the detective said that he don’t need to talk to the servants because “[He is] only [interested in] people with a real connection to the dead man.” The idea that the servants gives up themselves when they serve is reaffirmed by Mrs Wilson when she calls herself the “perfect servant”, before declaring “I have no life.”(Altman)
The servants don’t think highly of their employers either. Robert clearly shows his contempt by saying “[Lord Stockbridge] thinks he’s God Almighty. They all do.” Similarly, Elsie openly criticizes Lady Sylvia as “A snobbish cow”, and states that it’s disgusting the way everyone uses Sir William. The servants disliking of their employers is unleashed on Henry after Henry confesses that he is an actor; The servants refuses to talk to him, Jennings decides against assigning him a servant, and George pours hot coffee into Henry’s lap.
The only time when the two worlds seem to reconcile is through Ivor Novello and his singing. Ivor is not an aristocrats, but came from a commoner’s background; He is accepted by the aristocrats as one of their own because he is an entertainer and a film star. Altman describes having Ivor Novello as “a bit like having Bobby Darin to dinner.”(Altman and Thompson 201) The servants adored him and loved his music. This serves as a reminder that the class divisions are an artificial construct. In essence, the employers and the employees are all the same; human who desire beauty, compassion and love.
The film Gosford Park can be seen as a social commentary for the economic inequality the United States. Janet L. Yellen, CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco once described in a speech how the growth in income has been heavily concentrated in the top 1% in most recent years. (Yellen) The Economist makes an illustration saying if all Americans were set on a ladder according to their income, then between 1980 to the 2000s, the distance between those at the top of the ladder and those on the bottom has increased by a third (Economist).
Just like the aristocrats and the servants from the film, the society’s top earners and bottom earners do not get on very well. The low earners frequently protest about economic inequality. They see the high earners as people who abuse their position to gain wealth, while the high income earners generally don’t care much about the low income earners. If anything, they would place the blame on people at the bottom of the ladder for not working hard enough (Economist).This rings reminiscence of Lady Trentham’s words about how Mary should be paying her for all the things she does for Mary.
When read in this way, Pidduck suggest that the murder of Sir William symbolises “the imminent demise of this topography of power.” (Pidduck 130) But if it’s true that all the aristocrats needs Sir William, and if it’s true that the servants depends on the aristocrats as much as the aristocrats depends on the servants, then it begs the question; “What happens if such topography do fail?” What will people do if McCordle’s money start’s running out? In turn, if the current financial inequality was somehow balanced and the top earners removed of their possession, what would happen to the society? Or is ‘Sir William’ a necessary evil for the stability of society? The film does not give a clear answer. As Altman put is, the film is not about “who’d done it”. Instead it is an “it was done” (Miller). The question is just “what then?”
In conclusion, from the intro sequence with Lady Trentham and Mary Maceachran, to the death of Sir William, Gosford Park presents an un-romanticized version of servant live and that of their employers. Despite the continuous conflict between the two social classes, we see that they are closely interdependent and not really that different. Indeed all these can be read as a commentary on the economic inequality in the United State. On the one hand, Altman criticizes the unfairness of this financial divide. On the other hand, the film leaves the viewer wondering what would happen if things changed. Would everyone be happier? Or would breaking this interdependence be the end of society as we know it?
Altman, R., and D. Thompson. Altman on Altman. Faber & Faber, 2006. Print.
Gosford Park. 2001. Film Dec 26, 2001.
Economist, The. “The Rich, the Poor and the Growing Gap between Them.” The Economist (2006). Web. May 10 2013.
Evans, Sian. “Yells, Bells and Smells.” National Trust Magazine Nov 2011: 70-75. Print.
The Making of ‘Gosford Park’ 2001. Documentary. Miller, Danny, 14 December 2001.
Pidduck, J. Contemporary Costume Film: Space, Place and the Past. BFI, 2004. Print.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “A Touch of Class ” Chicago Reader. 31 (2002). Web. Jan 17-23.
Walsh, David. “Class Analysis and Feeling Mean a Great Deal.” (2001). Web. 10 May, 2013.
Wollheim, R. Art and Its Objects. Cambridge University Press, 1980. Print.
Speech to the Center for the Study of Democracy. 2006-2007 Economics of Governance Lecture. November 6, 2006 2006. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Print.