Typically, when you hear the phrase “murder mystery,” you think about Sherlock Holmes figuring out that the gardener did it because of the smell of the breath on a circus midget’s pet goat. Or at least I do. Regardless, the main thrust of such a story is just that, the story. The characters exist for the sake of being suspicious, and there’s generally a single investigator whose revelation of the culprit makes the whole thing worthwhile. By these standards, Gosford Park is about as far from a murder mystery as a murder mystery can get.
Sure, all the elements are there: the murder itself (which happens two thirds of the way through), the suspects, the lies and deceit, lots and lots of butlers, and even an inspector. But, in this case it’s the characters, not the story, that drive this film. Instead of being a plot-driven whodunut, Gosford Park is about the states and conditions of the people in a house during a particularly stressful time.
Set in a British manor, the movie, and its titular house, play host to some dozen visitors, who are visiting for a hunting party. While there, the visitors, and their accompanying servants meet, mingle, and most often, gossip. Whether it’s the Lords and Ladies or the maids and valets who wait on them, any deviation from acceptable or normal standards becomes immediate fare for juicy, often painfully public, discussion. And, when you get that many rigid, proper people in a room together, the cracks, do, inevitably, begin to show. At this point, the trick is to exploit others’ cracks to turn them into a balm for one’s own. Most interestingly, everyone is aware of the phenomenon but nonetheless perpetuates it, always pretending that artifice and defamation are their God-given right.
What’s most fascinating about the film is its class division and social structure. As mentioned, there are the rich folk and there are the servants who wait on them. While the film does show a seedier side of both classes, as a whole, it is far more critical of the upper class. The servants, maids, butlers, and valets earn immediate sympathy for being the real force behind their masters’ ability to remain selfish and deluded. These are hard-working men and women, some of whom resent their lot in life, and others who embrace it, but they take full advantage of being the priviledged ears of all of the house’s gossip. They spread it amongst themselves, and to their masters, seemingly grasping for a taste of glamorous lives that they should realize, by the nature of their own duties, does not actually exist. Head maid Elsie (Emily Watson) herself says, “Why do we spend our time living through them? Look at poor old Lewis. If her own mother had a heart attack, she’d think it was less important than one of Lady Sylvia’s farts.” It seems that both groups, despite knowing better, believes in, and strives for the better life. The aristocracy is wealthy enough to try a “fake it till you make it approach,” while the workers continue to accept their place, wiping their patrons’ bottoms, not entirely ungrateful for the opportunity to bask in their superiority.
More than anything, Gosford Park is a study of the collision of delusions. In packing together too many people, all of whom are determined to improve their standing without airing their own dirty laundry or upset the general status quo, all of those delusions start to crumble. That’s why the focus isn’t so much on who killed whom; it’s more about a social system where sooner or later, someone was bound to get killed. When people simply pretend that their sins and indescretions don’t exist, they are bound to resurface, and in a culture so fixated on appearance, secrets are worth killing for. Getting a look into these character’s lives, the most surprising thing is that only one person ended up dead, even he does need to be killed twice.