Period Films: Post Podcast Homework

This week on The Tangent Tree podcast, Sam and I discussed exactly what is meant by the term “period film”. Amid our varying definitions, we touched stories that were contemporary when they were written that then become period pieces, biographical and historical films, and also films that are deliberately set in the past, in order to address concerns about the present that are sometimes too sensitive to be tackled in contemporary form.


This week’s podcast “homework”, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, is one his finest films. Based on an idea by Altman and Bob Balaban, it features a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, exploring the upstairs/downstairs culture of 1930s posh country houses; a culture Fellowes would go on to explore to more popular effect in TV series Downton Abbey.


Gosford Park is, on paper at least, a murder mystery in the classic Agatha Christie tradition. Yet the murder here arrives very late, giving a chance for Altman to let loose with his trademark brilliance in juggling a superb ensemble cast. And what a cast – Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Charles Dance, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Jeremy Northam, Ryan Phillipe, Kelly McDonald, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates, Richard E Grant, Stephen Fry… Oh, I can’t be bothered to list everyone. You get the idea.


As I said, the murder arrives late, which means the film gets to dig into the afore-mentioned forensic examination of the upstairs/downstairs master/servant relationships, amid the shooting party Gambon’s character has invited everyone to. Altman and Fellowes amusingly dissect the snobbery of the servants, in particular their petty jealousies and rivalries, which are often based around on the station of whomever they are working for. At the same time, the film doesn’t spare the rod in depicting the cruelty of their masters and mistresses, and their often repugnant secrets. One such secret forms the dramatic basis for an emotional climax that, as I spoke about in the podcast, addresses sensitive concerns in the present as well as the past.


Aside from this, there is plenty of wit and amusement throughout. I particularly like the darkly hilarious moment when Kristin Scott Thomas indifferently agrees to carry on the affair she has just started, the night after her husband has been murdered, because “I suppose life must go on”. There’s also a stunningly scathing moment of snobbery from Maggie Smith’s character, who asks an American guest from Hollywood what happens at the end of their film. He says he wouldn’t want to spoil it, to which Smith replies “Oh, I can assure you none of us will ever see it”. Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) playing piano to an unappreciative audience who ignore him, whilst servants sit at a crack in the drawing room door, enjoying his music, is another gem of a scene.


Once the murder investigation finally begins, it is treated in a deliberately brusque way, with Stephen Fry’s hilariously inept detective proving a lot more memorable than the details of the murder itself. But again, Altman only uses the murder as a flimsy excuse to explore what he is really interested in. By the time the denouement arrives, we almost don’t care who did the deed. The truth is, we’re much likelier to remember the subtle and scathing wit, social politics, intricate relationships, and the fact that “an Englishman is not waited on at breakfast”, rather than whodunit.

Samantha Stephen