Gosford Park: No Downton Abbey


I began watching Julien Fellows’ Gosford Park with high hopes. After all, I love Downton Abbey and Fellows won the Oscar for this screenplay.

I was disappointed. Sorely. Despite an all star cast, Gosford Park lacked a single character I found charming or likable. There was one Scottish maid who seemed mousy but nice. She wasn’t enough to carry a film of this length. The characters all came off as cold, greedy and indolent. The upperclass people spent money like water and had nothing but disdain for each other and got no joy from their money.

The downstairs servants weren’t much better. Though not as spoiled they were all out for themselves in a different way. No warmth at all. They just wanted to get their work done with as little fuss as possible. Anyone who upset their system was glared and scoffed at.

One theme that rose was how the servants felt overshadowed by their employers. I can see that, but the grass isn’t always greener. If they worked in offices, their lives would also be precarious and as one of my new colleagues asserts if you work for one company for a long time, that company forms your identity to a great extent. So if they traded their apron for a factory uniform it’s not sure that they’d be happier or more secure.

Sexual harassment was rampant as the lord of the manor couldn’t keep his hands to himself, but in a store, office or factory women run into that too.

For the first 75 minutes we see rich people bicker, whinge and finagle for money. Now and then someone says something they think is droll and smokes a cigarette. Then the plot picks up when the lord who’s a churl gets murdered. Yet the investigation is so incompetently carried out that I just couldn’t buy it. In the end we do learn who did it, but by then I barely cared.

Fellows sure deepened his understanding about character and plot by the time he started Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey, Season 3, episode 1

Season 3 Cast

Season 3 Cast

I can’t recall anticipating the return of a television show more than I have Downton Abbey‘s Season 3. Perhaps Sherlock, when it comes but that’s way off in the distance. I’ve re-viewed several of the episodes from the previous seasons when they were re-broadcast and noted little details that I’d missed.

At last on the 6th, we got to meet Cora’s mother, the brash American, Mrs. Martha Levinson, played with great panache by Shirley MacLaine. Talk about a bull in a china shop and someone to set Violet’s teeth on edge. How did Cora develop such grace? Her father must have been more reserved.

Julian Fellow’s story drew me in as I wanted to tell Branson, the ex-chauffer to lighten up, put on the Downton clothes and make his case by drawing on people’s sympathy rather than jumping on a soap box every chance he got. I did feel sorry for him when Sybil’s old suitor sneered at him and slipped him a mickey.

Another great story element was the announcement that Lord Grantham has lost his fortune, well, Cora’s fortune. That news, hushed up as it has been, charges every scene with tension. What will all the characters do when they find out? For now only a few know.

Thomas never ceases to devilishly plot and this time he got on O’Brien’s bad side. By making her nephew get in trouble by marring Mathew’s dinner jacket, Thomas became the victim of O’Brien’s prank of hiding all Lord Gratham’s good shirts thus adding to the ruin of the episode’s most significant social event and making the Lord look like a waiter or a Chicago bootlegger, take your pick.

We got glimpses of Bates in jail and Anna trying to do a bit of detective work to get him out. We also see that if he doesn’t keep his cool with his cellmate, Bates may get himself into further trouble.

As usual, the two hours went fast and tantalized fans with great character development and plot points. It looks like Edith’s going to marry Sir Anthony, the old geezer she’s so fond of. He’ll treat her well, it seems, and she is keen on him, but generally when the groom’s so luke warm, that doesn’t bode well for a marriage. Time will certainly tell.

Wives and Daughters

I finished the BBC’s Wives and Daughters, a very satisfying mini-series. I’ve learned that the author Elizabeth Gaskell didn’t finish this novel so the ending is conjecture. Intriguing . . . I wonder if she’d told anyone how she wanted the story to end.

As I posted earlier, this is the story of Molly Gibson, a fair, down-to-earth young woman whose mother died when she was a girl. Molly’s father remarries when he sees his daughter blossoming and young men falling for her. Suddenly, Molly needs a mother.

Enter Hyacinth, a fussy, social climber with plenty of airs and her daughter Cynthia. Luckily, the Gibsons fare better than Cinderella. While Hyacinth starts by getting rid of all Molly’s furnishings, which were her mother’s, and she can be a gossip and eavesdropper, she isn’t evil or oppressive, just annoying. Educated in France, Cynthia is more fashionable and self-centered than Molly, but she’s also a dear friend to Molly. Because Cynthia’s aware of her own failings, she’s likeable. So Molly lucks out in the stepsister area too. Thank you, Elizabeth Gaskell, for your light touch: just enough conflict and flaws to make for a good story.

Cynthia does bring secrets and problems to the Gibson’s calm home. When she was 15 she promised to marry Robert Preston, a rather shadowy land agent who lent her 20 pounds. At 20 she has no intention of marrying Preston and in fact agreed to marry Robert Hamley, whom Molly pines for.

There are quite a few familiar faces in the cast. Dr. Gibson is played Bill Paterson, who was on Law & Order: UK. Cynthia is played by MI-5 and the new Upstairs Downstairs Keeley Hawes. Tom Hollander, who played the unctuous Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice plays Osborne, Robert’s older brother who starts with such promise, but brings his family heartache.

Molly's in white - a lot less lace

I got a kick out of the costumes here. The more lace one wore, the better off or I’d say the more pretentious the person was. Molly usually donned more streamlined dresses whereas Hyacinth and some of the townswomen were drowning in lace, though I suppose the gigantic puffy sleeves they wore could act as floatation devices in an emergency. Less is more, ladies.

I enjoyed Molly and her friendships with Cynthia, Osborn, Mrs. Hamley, the Squire. She brought out the best in people. She wasn’t a doormat, but she wasn’t overly rebellious either. I marvel at how 19th century characters are so often articulate, wise and fair-minded even when arguing for their lives, or if not lives, their love lives and freedoms.

How do these people remain so respectful? So civil at all times? What have we moderns lost?

Wives and Daughters, Part 1

The BBC production of Elizabeth Gaskell‘s Wives and Daughters isn’t as well-known as say Pride and Prejudice or Emma. Gaskell is a writer I just learned about a year ago, but I’m liking her more and more. I loved Gaskell’s novel Cranston and the BBC production of her North and South was quite good.

Episode one of this 4 part series introduces viewers to Molly Gibson, a young girl who’s mother’s died. She gets lost and is brought to a huge country home. Cut ahead ten years later and her father, a country doctor decides to wed because Molly suddenly needs a mother. Of course, his choice shocks Molly. She doesn’t feel she needs a mother and she knows she won’t like this finicky woman Dr. Gibson chose.  This Cinderella story works as they almost always do. I add more as I move through the subsequent episodes

North and South Ending

Whilst I’m in New Mexico, I’m sharing some favorite scenes from Master Piece Theater’s North and South.

North and South

The scene above takes place in the first half of North and South. This couple just seems like oil and water, right. Considering how they first met when Margaret sees Mr. Thornton yelling and about to thrash one of his workers, this is something of an improvement.

The genre requires that halfway through the story the main characters oppose each other, yet these two do seem like they’ll never get together. And if they did, poor Margaret would be tethered to that virago, his mother, who would make a good subject for a Grant Wood painting.

North and South lacks the romance of great architecture or lovely gardens one expects in a British series. No one seems allowed to wear a cheerful color in Milton. That actually works in this story; it’s the point of difference that hooked me. Margaret wasn’t the most beautiful woman. She couldn’t be a model, but that also works in the favor of the story as you believe that she’d be down to earth and would befriend factory workers.

I expected a “two star” pretty good experience, but the more I think of it, the more I like North and South and the more I’d like to read the novel.

Downton Abbey

I’d heard Downton Abbey was excellent some time ago and have found time to watch the first few episodes. Set in the early 20th century, before WWI, Downton Abbey delves into the lives of the inhabitants of a magnificent family estate. Like the earlier Sense and Sensibility, the family who has lived in this mansion for generations is likely to lose it because there’s no living male heir. A middle class third cousin is now in line for the estate including the wife’s fortune and though everyone involved sees the injustice, there’s something of a sho-ga-nai (it can’t be helped) attitude towards this change of events. The young lawyer who’s set to inherit moves to the village and really does not want this house or the servants that come with it.

Half the drama takes place amongst the servants. There’s deceit, rivalry, jealousy and envy. When Bates a new butler arrives, he is in the crosshairs of the more venial staff, who’re appalled because he walks with a limp and thus the more superficial see him as an affront to the dignity of the house. The characters are reserved and articulate as you’d expect. The drama is elegant and tense with little surprises. The clothes are exquisite and while I’m more like the third cousin who doesn’t see the need for assistance getting dressed, etc., it is interesting to watch how this house operates and how everyone cares so much about doing their work with excellence. (A sharp counterpoint to my maid in Indonesia.)

The cast features some familiar faces. Elizabeth McGovern (Ordinary People) plays the mother and Hugh Bonneville (Notting Hill) plays the father.