The ghosts of “Gosford Park”

Robert Altman doesn't just enliven the corpse of the manor-house murder mystery -- he reunites it with its vital literary forebears.

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The ghosts of "Gosford Park"

If you’ve read any of the reviews of “Gosford Park,” you know already that the praises being sung for Robert Altman’s latest film have generally resolved into a single chorus: Beyond the brilliant ensemble performances and the uncharacteristically restrained camerawork, the real achievement of the film is the revival of that most tired and unfashionable of narrative genres — the English manor-house whodunit. And at first glance, it does seem like a remarkable feat, particularly given Altman’s track record at reviving defunct pulp entertainment. (A certain spinach-eating cartoon sailor springs to mind.)

The manor-house whodunit — after a brief flowering in the late 19th century and a long middle age of mediocrity sustained largely by Agatha Christie and her disciples — now survives mostly in the degraded form of Lifetime channel reruns of “Murder, She Wrote.” Breathing new life into this form is like resuscitating Professor Plum after he’s already been stabbed in the drawing room.

And yet somehow Altman pulls it off. But not just by collaborating on a deft and genuinely touching script, or assembling a cast of Britain’s finest not-quite-marquee actors (along with the sublime American actor Bob Balaban, who co-conceived the film). Altman doesn’t just revive an untimely genre by propping it up with smart writing and smart actors: He performs a more impressive sleight of hand, which is to take a tired genre and reconnect it to its roots — like a kind of stop-motion film of literary history run in reverse. You can think of it as an Agatha Christie movie that slowly transforms itself into a 19th-century triple-decker novel as you watch it. Which is intriguing enough, but it’s even more so if you keep in mind that the Christie genre descends from that more highbrow literary tradition, although the lineage is often obscured. It’s like taking a wayward bastard son and reuniting him with his noble, if somewhat calcified, true father. Which, as it turns out, is one way of describing the plot of “Gosford Park.”

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Successful genres have a way of transforming the physical spaces they occupy, turning them into backdrops for a predictable set of actions. (Think what the “Godfather” films and their ilk did for Little Italy.) Walk through the ornate living spaces of a British country estate, and the mind naturally conjures up images of Hercule Poirot grilling the squire over a glass of claret.

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One of the many things to be said in favor of “Gosford Park” is that Altman openly embraces these archetypes, and refrains from the more obvious tactic of archly deconstructing them: We have an honest-to-god stabbing in the library, and an honest-to-god lineup of the assembled suspects in the drawing room, each of whom is interrogated by a pipe-smoking inspector. You don’t get the sense that Altman is orchestrating these arrangements in order to laugh at them, as easy as that laughter might be. (He does toss off a few obligatory jokes courtesy of Balaban, who plays a Hollywood exec scouting the location for a “Charlie Chan Goes to London” flick.) “Gosford Park” is a funny movie, to be sure, but it takes itself seriously.

Taking the clichés seriously turns out to be the first step to understanding their origins. We’ve seen so many manor-house whodunits that the mind naturally starts looking for arsenic bottles and sinister butlers when confronted with a British country home; but when you think about it, the connection is a strangely arbitrary one. How did murder become so intimately tied to the iconography of British upper-class country living? The answer is a kind of detective story in itself, and to tell it you have to go back several generations, to the first great blossoming of the manor house narrative, in Jane Austen’s novels of the early 19th century. The estates in Austen’s books are invariably as vividly rendered as the characters themselves — Pemberley, Mansfield Park, Hartfield — and they are far more than mere backdrops. Austen’s plots orbit around their manor houses the way a heist movie orbits around a bank vault. The plots begin because something is unsettled in the stable system of the manor house — Sir Bertram’s departure from Mansfield Park; unmarried Emma living with her father in Hartfield — and they can’t resolve themselves until the estate has been literally settled, until Darcy and Elizabeth retire to Pemberley.

The emphasis on the manor homes can make Austen’s novels seem suffocating and excessively delicate to us now, but there is a historical reason for the primacy of the great estates in Austen’s work: The world of agrarian capitalism revolved around the large landowners and the “culture of improvement” they espoused, a value system that helped justify their newly enclosed and privatized land by making it more efficient. (There are few more sympathetic figures in the Austen canon than the gentleman farmer, industrious and versed in the latest agricultural techniques.) As Raymond Williams observed in his masterpiece, “The Country and the City,” while it is certainly true that Austen’s novels represented only a small fraction of the “real, material” conditions of British life in the early 1800s, she was nonetheless measuring the most profound geopolitical tremor at that moment in British history. And the great estates lay at its epicenter.

As it happened, the physical layout of the manor house proved singularly hospitable to elaborate plots, with its mix of public and private encounters, its shooting parties and rotating guests, its upstairs/downstairs mix of social classes. Stories naturally flourished there, and so the setting persisted through the 19th century, even as it became less and less relevant to Britain’s increasingly industrial and urban social reality. The manor house continued on as an important setting in the Brontës, in Thackeray, in Trollope and George Eliot. (Less so in Dickens, the most metropolitan of the 19th century British novelists.) By Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” and “Felix Holt,” it is showing its age: All the interesting things in the society are happening elsewhere. And even a novel like “Middlemarch” that studiously avoids the great beasts of London and Manchester has to leave the estate grounds to connect to the larger world. (When Dorothea marries Casaubon and retires to his home, the narrative almost lurches to a halt — Casaubon has to die for things to start up again.)

And so the cast of characters widens beyond the short list of those invited up to the manor, and the manor consequently loses its centrality. You can think of Austen’s novels as estate narratives that occasionally pay a visit to the town. The defining unit of “Middlemarch,” on the other hand, is the town; the estates live on, but at the margins now.

But the manor house, ultimately, was hard to give up. It was too lucrative for the storyteller, and there was too much fetish value associated with it. And so as the novel moved inward, toward the more psychological realm of early modernism, its locales moved inward too: back to the estates of Henry James, and then later, Forster and Waugh. The organic connection to the land, and to the mass political movements of the time, are abandoned for the crisp clarity of the Jamesian conversation, with its intricate choreography of moves and countermoves, its subtle insights and betrayals. Eliminate the broader system to which the country house connects, and you get a narrative of pure mental abstraction, a clash of characters and not classes.

From there, it was not far to get to the whodunit. Do away with the Jamesian psychological intricacies, and the endless syntactical contortions, and borrow the inspector figure originally developed by Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle and voilá — you have your Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery. “The true fate of the country-house novel was its evolution into the middle-class detective story,” Williams writes. “It was in its very quality of abstraction, and yet of superficially impressive survival, that the country house could be made the place of isolated assembly of a group of people whose immediate and transient relations were decipherable by an abstract mode of detection rather than by the full and connected analysis of any more general understanding.” Like many of its real-world specimens, the literary country-house detached itself from history and politics, from its original organic connection to the land, and became an ornate backdrop for murder most foul — like a kind of narrative exoskeleton, abandoned by its original hosts, and now inhabited by a lesser organism.

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In “Gosford Park” Altman faithfully re-creates the manor-house whodunit shell, while simultaneously reuniting it with its original host. On a formal level, “Gosford Park” turns out to be haunted by the ghosts of the 19th-century novel, and in particular by a narrative device that was essential to the novel’s social reach, its efforts to achieve what Williams called a “more general understanding” of its extraordinary historical moment. That device is the inheritance plot, which is as omnipresent in the 19th-century British novel as the adultery plot was in the French.

The inheritance plot was a kind of conceptual glue that helped the novelist connect an increasingly fragmented society, creating an interlinked web of convicts, dashing young urbanites, ancient nobility, factory owners and tenant farmers. It underwent a dazzling array of permutations, but its general shape was a reliable one: By the end of the novel, a long-suppressed familial line is unearthed, linking two different social groups, and usually restoring some sort of misplaced inheritance to its rightful owner. The device could be hackneyed, to be sure, but it enabled the novel to expand beyond the increasingly isolated worlds of specific social classes. At its best — in “Middlemarch,” or “Felix Holt,” or “Bleak House” — it became a powerful tool for social commentary, usually exposing the moral corruption of the social elite, a way of novelizing Marx’s line about the nightmare of dead generations weighing on the brains of the living.

The inheritance plot offered an escape route from the claustrophobia of the manor-house narrative; it translated the social betrayals and violence of the age into the familial realm that the novel had traditionally restricted itself to, without sacrificing the broader scope that was required to do justice to 19th-century life. If you wanted to write about both factory workers and the landed gentry, you couldn’t simply invite them all to a shooting party; you needed another device to connect those increasingly disconnected worlds. You needed the secret histories of the inheritance plot.

And herein lies the genius of “Gosford Park.” The film manages to embed an inheritance plot straight from the pages of “Felix Holt” or “Our Mutual Friend” inside the shell of an Agatha Christie whodunit. Without giving too much of the plot away, the movie’s climax unearths a dark story of ruthless class exploitation, disguised paternity and the injustices of factory life — without ever leaving the grounds of Gosford Park itself, save the first five minutes of the film. The 19th-century novel needed to abandon the great estates to capture the larger dynamics of British society, thereby leaving a profitable opening for the middle-class detective story to exploit. “Gosford Park” is a kind of return of the repressed: the manor house whodunit reunited with its long-lost ancestor, the inheritance plot. It makes for a beautiful symmetry: The past returns to haunt the characters of “Gosford Park,” just as the inheritance plot structure returns to enliven a long-moribund genre.

About 10 years ago, Altman staged his Hollywood revival with “The Player” — a postmodern sendup of Hollywood’s hollow men, where every plot twist segues into a movie pitch. Since that film’s release, deconstructed genre films have become a tired genre in themselves (reaching a low point with this year’s “Not Another Teen Movie”). “Gosford Park” suggests an exit strategy from this postmodern hall-of-mirrors: You revive a dead genre, not to showcase its essential hollowness, but rather to connect it to its original, and more vital, roots. It’s a kind of literary reconstruction, and a hopeful one at that. Just when you expect a mock Miss Marple to totter into the dining room, you find George Eliot instead.

Steven Johnson is the author of "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" and "Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate."

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