A friend told me : “I have seen the film and did not like it. It was glossy and full of famous names and not a good whodunnit”. This demanding film with its overlapping dialogues when important information could easily be missed presented an added challenge to some of our audience with hearing difficulties. So what I aimed to do at the U3A screening at the Lexi was simply to introduce Altman and his style of directing and genre renewal in the hope that some of the members of the audience would appreciate the film and be tempted to see it again on DVD.
For me the film was a delight. It offered me a group of diverse older women integrated in the general narrative and who reflected the ‘upstairs/downstairs’ aspect of the society of England in the 1930s. In a film where there are no major protagonists but over thirty characters played by great actors the old women are well represented and do not lack psychological depth . I will look at them in turn and point out the elements that form their characterisation.
Lavinia’s maid (Joanna Maude) merges with the other servants in group shots. We do get glimpses of her mending clothes or listening with delight to Ivor Novello. But Lewis (Meg Wynn Owen- 62), the maid of the lady of the house, Sylvia, conveys in the few seconds of screen time the image of the long-suffering older woman. When she is supplanted from her rightful place at the servant’s table she says: “Naturally I am nothing when there are visitors in the house. Never mind I am used to it”. In the scenes where she interacts with Sylvia, her mistress does not look at her once and even rejects her help. Sylvia divests herself of her false hair and eyelashes at arm’s length. Lewis is used but not acknowledged.
In opposition to this relationship between Sylvia and Lewis, Lady Constance the dowager and her novice maid have more interactive exchanges. It is Maggie Smith (67) who plays the role of the eccentric dowager in this film. The titles sequences introduce us to Constance and her maid Mary, characters who exemplify to us the way Altman is going to expose the class structure. Constance is in the shadows of the car but Mary is in full view, getting drenched in the rain and helping her mistress. The dowager in this film is not as rich or powerful as in other films and neither is she irresponsible. Lady Constance is an embodiment of her class. She is disdainful of the lower classes and of foreigners, she despises popular entertainment, the cinema and popular songs. She certainly considers class differences as natural “I have not one snobbish bone in my body”. But although she talks disparagely to the other women about her maid, she exchanges gossip with her in private. The last lines of dialogue of the film are between Constance and Mary and they show Constance’s basically human attitude. Constance is again in the soon departing car and says in worried tones to Mary: “Do you think if there’s a trial I might have to testify in court? Or you? I can’t think of anything worse. Imagine a person being hanged because or something one said in court.” Mary :” I know. And what purpose could it possibly serve anyway?” This exchange can be interpreted in different ways: Is Constance hinting to Mary not to divulge any information she may have? Mary’s reply echoing Mrs Wilson words (see later) provides closure for the audience but challenges the detective genre.
The downstairs older women are Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper, and Mrs Croft, the cook, played respectively by Helen Mirren (56) and Eileen Atkins (67). While Sir William welcomes his guests on the porch, Mrs Wilson directs the arrival of maids, footmen and valets in the servants hall. The operation is nearly military in its execution and Mirren commands the army of servants. Her looks are stern and haughty. She behaves throughout in this efficient authoritative manner. (Sylvia: “Thank you Mrs. Wilson, always ten steps ahead, as usual”). She is unflappable and when she first suspects on his arrival, that Stockbridge’s valet, Parks, might be her abandoned son, her slight discomfort is hardly noticeable on first viewing. The clues that subsequently accumulate in the brief scenes between her and Parks as to the nature of their link are subtle. She even keeps her composure when Mary confronts her with her knowledge that she was the murderer. She explains that she knew that Parks intended to kill his father and poisoned him so that her son would not be convicted, having stabbed a dead body. “Are you going to tell him” says Mary ” What purpose would it serve? she replies. As the perfect servant she anticipates other people’s needs and has no life of her own. Mirren delivers the lines with a passion that has deep emotional impact. Her breakdown in tears lying on her bed (such a familiar film scene of women’s despair) is all the more heartrending.
The conflict between Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Croft is also resolved in these emotional scenes. The antagonism between the two women is mentioned in gossip both upstairs and downstairs. George: “They hate each other”. Constance: “Why are they such enemies?” It is expressed by brushes over territory and status. In the kitchen Mrs. Croft intervenes between Henry and Mrs Wilson : “I am dealing with this.” Mrs. Wilson ” Now, now, we don’t want to be thought unsophisticated, do we?”, “Excuse me, but Dorothy’s under my jurisdiction as well, you know. And I say she can listen to a spot of music if she likes”. It is late in the film that it is revealed that they are sisters. The siblings resentments have two strands. On the one hand Mrs Croft cannot forgive her sister for giving her illegitimate child for adoption. She kept hers and lost her job but the child died. On the other hand Mrs. Wilson climbed the servants social ladder and was responsible for providing her sister with the cook post in McCordle household. While Mrs Wilson never expresses her feelings, Mrs. Croft does not hesitate to voice her contempt for Sir William “a hard-hearted randy old sod”, “he got what he deserved”. The emotional breakdown of Mrs. Wilson following admission of her guilt of murder and the departure of her son permits her sister to comfort and forgive her.
It is such a relief and surprise for me to find that I did not, in this piece, talk about the appearance of the old women but considered their social and psychological circumstances. Old women in major as well as minor roles are diverse. They reflect the society portrayed and fulfill a role in it. Constance is not the usual caricature. Both Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Croft keep their titles throughout. Both have a teaching role with the younger women. Both are proud and dignified. The casting, direction, characterisation and dialogue, the whole mise-en-scene stress who they are rather than how they look.
Once again I feel I do not make justice to a great film. But my role here is simply to highlight the images of old women.