August Murders: Playfully Challenging the Murder Mystery Formula



Gosford Park (2001) is an Agatha Christie-styled British murder mystery that takes place in the English countryside in the 1930s. It is a black comedy, written by Julian Fellows (of Downton Abbey fame) and directed by American Robert Altman. This is a great film collaboration to watch if you are into mysteries, as well as period pieces like I am. 

The film challenges the traditional Murder Mystery formula by playfully steering away from established elements of the genre, while focusing on poking fun at the British social class structure of the period.

Location is one of the most important elements of a Murder Mystery.  This film delivers in this category as it is set in the English countryside, where the Lord of the manor house, Sir William McCordle and his wife, Lady Sylvia, have invited family with other notable friends to a shooting party at their country estate, Gosford Park.

Gosford Park with all its beauty and splendor is the perfect location for a murder and equally perfect to highlight the stark contrasts between the upper and lower classes.  During the film, viewers are treated to the views of the manor both inside and out.  Inside we see the grandeur of the home’s dining room as the servants meticulously prepare the lavish table for dinner, the well-appointed bedrooms, the grand staircase, and hallways where intimate conversations take place, as well as the drawing room and the library.

These locations are in stark contrast to the dark work areas in the lower part of the manor  where the servants toil and the sparse bedrooms on the top floor provided to the staff who wait on the upper-class from dawn to the wee hours of the evening. Viewers are also treated to sweeping views of the beautiful estate and vast landscape during the shooting party as well as outdoor living area where the guests enjoy their spirited luncheon.    

Another interesting aspect of this film which helps establish the setting, mood, and overall theme is the wonderful music that is authentic to the time period.  One will be surprised to learn that the music featured in this film was the creative genius of the real Ivor Novello, who was in fact a famous British silent screen star. In this film, Ivor Novello is played by Jeremy Northam, a famous British screen star who is the son of a schoolteacher, and the cousin of Sir William McCordle. 

While a guest of Sir William he is not treated with respect by Lady Sylvia, her family, and most of her guests.  In fact, he has been invited to provide entertainment for them although they neither acknowledge nor admire him in stark contrast to the adoration he receives from Mrs. Nesbitt. While the upper-class seem utterly bored by Novello the servants are in awe and mesmerized by his dashing good looks and talent. 

After dinner service and exhausted from their endless duties they linger around in the hallways just to hear him play and sing. Those scenes are like a sweet serenade. In one scene, Mr. Weissman asks Novello how he can put up with these weekends when he is in fact an unpaid entertainer, he simply replies, “You forget I earn my living by impersonating them.”

Gosford Park is filled with engaging dialogue that is filled with double meanings, snide remarks, and innuendos that come across as almost natural for this time period. The setting of this film certainly transports us to a sitting room in a manor house in the English countryside.

This film stands out for its A-list ensemble cast which includes Michael Gambon as Sir William McCordle, Kristen Scott Thomas as Lady Sylvia McCordle, Dame Maggie Smith as Aunt Constance or the Countess of Trentham, Camila Rutherford as Isobel McCordle, Charles Dance, as Lord Stockbridge, Geraldine Somerville as Lady Stockbridge, Tom Hollander as Lt. Commander Anthony Meredith, Natasha Wightman as Lady Lavinia Meredith, James Wiolby as Freddie Nesbitt, Claudie Blakley as Mabel Nesbitt, Jeremy Northam as a Film Star, Ivor Novello, Bob Balaban as Morris Weissman, Ryan Phillippe as Henry Denton, Laurence Fox as Lord Rupert Standish, Trent Ford as Jeremy Blond.  

The cast also includes notable actors and actresses playing the house staff.  These include Kelly Macdonald as Mary Maceachran (Trenton), Clive Owens, as Robert Parks (Stockbridge), Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson- the Housekeeper, Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Croft – the Head Cook, Alan Bates as Mr. Jennings – The Butler, Emily Watson as Elsie, Derek Jacobi as Probert, Richard Grant as George, Jeremy Swift as Arthur, Sophie Thompson as Dorothy, Meg Wynn Owen as Lewis, Adrian Scarborough as Barnes, Frank Thornton as Mr. Burkett, Stephen Fry as the Investigator and Ron Webster as the Constable. Once the murder takes place many will be viewed as possible suspects.  

In this film the murder itself takes a secondary role in the plot, but it is deeply intertwined with the film’s theme, a study of Britain’s social class hierarchy. The film begins as the guests make their way to the English countryside under torrential rains. Immediately you are given a glimpse of the marked difference in status as the soft spoken English maid, Mary, is made to stand in the pouring rain while her employer, the Countess of Trentham, is helped into the car, and then again when the Countess cannot open her thermos on her own, Mary is required to get out of the car, and stand in the rain while attending to her mistress. 

The stark differences between the station of these two characters is quite interesting and are explored throughout the film again and again.  In another example, Constance asks Mary to spill the servant’s gossip. When Mary is reluctant, Constance quips, “If there’s one thing I don’t look for in a maid is discretion. Except with my own secrets of course.”  The film consistently jabs at the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of the period’s obsession with class, position, wealth, and social mores.

In another scene both the upper class and lower-class belittle the Nesbitts because they are unattended which means they came to the shooting party without servants whatsoever.  Moreover, poor Mrs. Nesbitt is not only humbled by her husband’s repeated disrespectful behaviors but because she is subjected to wear the same pre-fabricated dress all weekend long while others parade in their finery becoming the brunt of many a joke.

In the film, even Sir William McCordle isn’t safe from this obsession with social hierarchy. Although a millionaire and the source of financial support for Lady Sylvia, their daughter Isabel, Constance, and the financial ventures of several other guests he is looked down upon because of his “new” money status which was attained through industry and investments rather than by birth. Lady Sylvia on the other hand although titled was a penniless aristocrat before marrying Sir William and demonstrates her utter disdain for him in every move she makes.  

As the guests arrive, viewers are introduced to the cast of characters that include Lady Sylvia’s sisters Louisa and Lavinia, and their husbands Lord Raymond Stockbridge and Commander Anthony Meredith; her aunt Constance, the Countess of Trentham; the Honorable Freddie and Mabel Nesbitt and the actor Ivor Novello.  Accompanying Ivor Novello is an American film producer Morris Weissman and his man servant. The guests settle in as do their servants who are renamed according to the family they serve.

The plot and subplots begins to unfold as we learn that the guests have ulterior motives for attending this weekend party. There is marital strife, flirtations, competitive sibling relationships, financial hardships, blackmail, greed, adultery across social class boundaries, and those that are there to raise their social standing. 

In short, this film is a smorgasbord of the 7 deadly sins pride, greed, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, sloth. Early on we also learn that the gauche Hollywood Film Producer who is Sir William’s guest is doing research for an upcoming film.  When asked what the film is about, he says, “Most of it takes place at a shooting party like this one actually. Murder in the middle of the night and everyone’s a suspect.” 

Constance comments and inquires, “How horrid. Who turns out to have done it?” He responds, “I couldn’t tell you that. It would spoil it for you.” She condescendingly replies, “Oh, but none of us will see it.”  The story of course gets interesting when a silver carving knife that went missing after the first’s night’s dinner party is used as a murder weapon the following evening.

With murder afoot both guests and servants become suspects in the crime.  That’s where the fun really begins.  There are funny scenes that point to several red herrings.  One example is when the Hollywood Producer who is on an oversees call is discussing his film in the background while the murder is discovered in the foreground, and he announces the butler did it to the chagrin of the actual butler, Mr. Jennings.

The dead body having been discovered by Lady Sylvia’s sister, Louisa, has caused an uproar among guests and staff, yet the Lady of the Manor seems utterly unfazed and frankly inconvenienced by the whole matter.  When Investigator Thompson arrives at the manor, Lady Sylvia takes charge, and says let me introduce you to everyone so that we can all get to bed.    The Investigator donning the usual pipe is no Sherlock Holmes.  Contrary to most Murder Mysteries where the investigator is ahead of the game and sees things everyone else misses– this investigator is more in awe of the guests, revealing himself to be a bumbling fool.  

In stark contrast, he is accompanied by Constable Dexter who is observant, follows investigative protocols and asks all the right questions.  When one of the servants wants to move the body to make the victim more comfortable the Inspector allows it thus resulting in a disruption of key evidence.  Constable Dexter bothered by the Investigator’s lack of professionalism notes that although the victim has been stabbed there is no blood and discovers mud leading to a secret passageway and a broken teacup all valuable clues in this murder investigation. Yet, his observations and advice are disregarded by the lead inspector who continues to contaminate the crime scene. One begins to doubt if the murderer will ever be found out.

Gosford Park is definitely an unconventional Murder Mystery.  It is frankly a creative mash-up period piece, Murder Mystery, and black comedy all rolled up into one, but it is sure worth watching as it playfully challenges the traditional formula while poking fun at the British social class structure of the past.  Watch it and you’ll be drawn in by lively characters, creative dialogue vivid images, and a plot with subplots that focus on the stark contrasts of 1930s society. 

Interestingly, the film ends with the self-absorbed, calculated, and deceitful Lady Sylvia as clueless about the goings on in her own home as is the Investigator. Beyond the clues discovered by Constable Dexter, viewers are informed of who dun it by the novice lady’s maid, Mary, who is able to figure it all out by film’s end.  I love this movie and have seen it many, many, many times and enjoy it fully each and every time. I hope you take a chance and watch Gosford Park for yourself.  

Fun Facts: If you are a Downton Abbey fan you would be interested to know that this film precedes the series and was originally intended as a spin-off.  Eventually, Downton Abbey become a standalone property that intimately follows the goings on of the British aristocracy and their servants.  Dame Maggie Smith not only plays Constance the Countess of Trentham in Gosford Park but also portrays scene stealer, Violet, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham in Downton Abbey equipped with the same silvery stinging tongue.  If you have never seen Downton Abbey, you can watch all 6 seasons and 52 episodes on Amazon Prime.  

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