Has there ever been a life as blessed as that of the wealthy English country house owner of the 1930’s?
Imagine being able to toss off casual commands to a huge staff who are there to anticipate every thing the master wants and have it ready before he realizes he wants it. And imagine living in a magnificent house with a safe full of silver and jewels, breakfast in bed, and lots of room for everyone you know to come and spend the weekend.
Pretty good, as long as you’re on the upstairs side of the equation. This movie, a cross between “Upstairs Downstairs,” an Agatha Christie murder mystery, and a game of Clue, uses the pre-WWII country house as an ideal setting for intrigue, romance, ambition, betrayal, and revenge. And it is also a cautionary tale about class, secrets, money, sex, and love.
Lady Constance (Maggie Smith) represents the last of the old way. She unhesitatingly accepts her position in the class hierarchy, despite the minor inconvenience of having to humble herself by asking for more money from a cousin who represents the new. He is a relative by marriage named Sir William(Michael Gambon). His money may be vulgar because it is newly made and his manners may be vulgar because his wealth permits them to be, but just about everyone in the house wants something from him.
The servants, so regimented that they are called by the names of their masters and seated according to the ranks of those they serve, also show the range from those too bound by respect for tradition or lack of imagination to think of something else, to those who cling to the structure so that they do not have to think about anything else, and those who are just beginning to be aware that the world is going to present them with alternatives they could never have dreamed of.
The household includes Sir William’s bored and bitter wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), their daughter, with eyes like sqashed poppies, terrified of having a secret discovered and with no one to confide in but her maid, a brother-in-law desperate for Sir William to back a business deal, and a distant relative who is the only real-life historical character in the movie, early screen idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who brings a Hollywood producer to take notes on the place for a Charlie Chan movie. As Novello literally sings for his supper, entertaining the guests one evening, you can see the future. Those who ignore him (most of the guests) will soon fade, but those who love his music (most of the household staff) will soon take over when World War II transforms the economy and class system of Britain more radically than any event of the previous 300 years.
When asked about his relatives, Novello says that he “earns (his) living by impersonating them.” He is only one of many characters who explore the divide between upstairs and downstairs. There are sexual encounters, largely enjoyed by both parties. And a character who arrives in one category is revealed to be in the other.
As in his best movies, Altman masterfully handles a dozen overlapping and intersecting storylines. Somewhere in the midst, there is a murder, but its resolution is incidental to the many other revelations and confrontations.
The Oscar-winning script is superb, but the movie is mostly a banquet of magnificent performances by most of England’s finest performers. It is worth watching a second or third time, just to enjoy Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Scott Thomas, Gambon, and Northam. Ryan Phillipe and Bob Balaban (who co-produced) do very well as the Americans.
Parents should know that the movie has sexual references and situations (briefly graphic), including adultery and homosexuality, and an attempted molestation. There is some strong language and a character is murdered.
Families who see this movie should talk about how each of the different characters fits into the overall story. Which do they sympathize with the most? Which do they dislike the most? Who in the film actually cares about Sir William? Why? Why was it so important for Mrs. Wilson to be the “perfect servant?” What will happen to each of the characters in 10 years?
DVD note: The Collector’s edition DVD has outstanding extras, including commentary by the director, production designer, producer, and screenwriter, deleted scenes and a Q&A session with the film-makers. Strongly recommended.