Gosford Park offers many complexities in its multiple characters and storylines, yet they all center on the nature of class and prejudice with a comical twist. Its mixture of snobby aristocrats, unhappy couples, entertainment celebrities, nervous servants, and foreign outsiders creates a colorful mosaic of the British class system within the space of one big mansion, where everyone is divided by the floor. Even though the film pays tribute to Agatha Christie murder mysteries with its who-dun-it style, it’s less dark and moody as most mysteries and uses the murder as an event that doesn’t keep the guests spooked, but keeps them going through the day on their regular boring routine. To them, it’s one less guest to care about, even though the victim’s secret past comes to be the source of intrigue. As we gradually learn secrets about the household and the guests, from upstairs to downstairs, it comes to show how unfulfilling and unsatisfying their lives are, whether they are rich or poor.
The most central voice of the servants is Mary (Kelly MacDonald), who observes and listens on many of the events in the house and the hidden secrets of the multiple characters that we are driven to sympathize with her the most out of the whole ensemble. Her mistress Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) is wonderfully snobby and funny all at the same time in how she gossips, conceals her emotions, and expresses apathetic interest in guests like actor/singer Ivor Norvello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend director Morris Weissman with no love for the arts and entertainment, especially when she begs people at the card table not to clap for Norvello’s piano solo. At the same time, the sequence of Norvello playing the piano and singing creates a mixture of warmth and mystery as we see the servants listening to Norvello’s voice and dancing to the tune outside the room, while it’s also juxtaposed with several of the guests leaving the drawing room and returning after we see someone being stabbed in another room, followed by a scream that breaks the mood and alerts them to the murder scene. It creates the mystery of the who-dun-it while paying attention to the warmth in the reactions of the guests to something very beautiful and entertaining. It’s the servants who are mostly drawn to the voice of an entertainer because it represents a fantasy they long to escape to from the bowels of the downstairs corridors, something the wealthy barely care about when they’re too busy with their money and fashion. Once the investigation begins behind the murder, Mary shows the most curiosity about who would want to kill the victim and why, which further shows how Robert Altman wanted the audience to identify mostly with the servants. MacDonald portrays Mary with an understated innocence and curiosity that allows us to sympathize with her and follow her reactions to all the goings-on. The things that happen upstairs are attention-getting and seem to have the bigger effect on the people downstairs who are there to serve and listen in on what shouldn’t be their business.
The tone of the film is very comical and bleak in the juxtapositions of the upstairs and the downstairs as we dig into the lives of the multiple characters, without letting the drama be melodramatic or the murder be disturbing. A hero and a villain can’t be drawn out between the upstairs and the downstairs because all the characters are intriguing to follow and the way they treat each other positively or negatively shows how equally human they are. Not everybody is friends or loving family members, but that’s how flawed and imperfect humanity is, low class or upper class. The nuanced effect that Altman delivers in this ensemble piece and the complexities that are dug out in the multiple storylines leaves a marvelous impact of an American filmmaker who sadly died several years later after this film was released, leaving Gosford Park as one of his last best masterpieces.