Sunday, November 05, 2006

“Difficult Colour, Green”

A Review of Gosford Park

I spent a spinsterish evening with a bottle of wine and my Netflix last night. I watched Gosford Park, which I missed in theatres when it came out (has it been five years already?) and was immensely pleased. Be advised: there are spoilers in the following review.

A murder mystery set in an English coutnry manor, Gosford Park draws self-consciously on tropes off the Birtish golden Age mysteries, and pulls it off splendidly.

The film features a number of wonderful spinsters, each initially dismissed and underestimated, but all, in the end, proving the true strength and slyness that lies beneath the brittle façade. (Being underestimated is a primary characteristic of the spinster.) Characterization is also one of the best points of the subtle, complex and layered script, in which characters are never what they seem. Maggie Smith initially comes off as little more than a cantankerous old crank, but reveals herself to be witty and full of sly humour. She also has some of the best lines in the film, particularly when she’s cutting other people down, but she does well with all manner of well-phrased complaints and orders.

Helen Mirren is the other spinster of significance. She is cold, excessively proper, orderly, and utterly unyielding. Thin and tight-lipped in a form-flattening dress, she evokes all the frigid spinster stereotypes on sight. But of course beneath that rigid front lies a smoldering cauldron of repressed emotion, in this case heartbreaking regret over the baby boy she gave away when she was a young factory girl. She is completely self-sacrificing (“I am the perfect servant” she says) and goes to great lengths to safeguard her son.

Mirren is a secretly maternal spinster; Smith is an old woman who revels in her selfishness and solitude, and thus sets an example for us all. I also like Eileen Atkins’ character, who reminds us that a spinster’s best friend is often her sister.

I also like the relationship between Maggie Smith and her maid in the film. The young Mary (Kelly Macdonald) eventually garners the old countesses approval after showing herself to be just as stoically, almost cheerfully, amoral as the old woman.

The film has it all -- class, sexual mores, an homage to Jean Renoir -- and the writing sparkles, all Cole Porter and champagne. And I love these characters. I think I may also have taken a fancy to Clive Owen. His obvious bent toward melancholy is terribly attractive.

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