[You’re on the correct site—this film is here because it’s Service Porn. I haven’t lost my mind.]
It’s 1932 and roughly 900 British actors descend on a country house out in the …country. (The only British actors not present are Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and Judi Dench, but Judi’s daughter attends in her stead. Hugh Laurie and Anna Chancellor are probably filming Fortysomething.)
There’s a shooting party being hosted by William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his much younger wife, Sylvia (Kristen Scott Thomas). We open with the house all a-bustle as people arrive with their various servants, and the servants who live there are preparing everything like mad below-stairs.
Servant-wranglers are Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) as the housekeeper and Mrs Croft (Eileen Atkins) as the cook, who hate each other and have done for so long most people can’t recall why. On the male side, we have Jennings (Alan Bates, RIP) as the butler and George (Richard E. Grant) as the first footman. One of the more important characters is a maid named Elsie, played by Emily Watson. (I can’t recall what type of maid she was in particular.)
The first away-servant we meet (as opposed to home-servant) is Mary Maceachran (don’t try to pronounce it) (Kelly MacDonald), who serves Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith). Dame Maggie is a catty, hilarious Oscar nominated glory to behold.
Other away-servants and their owners are Robert Parks (Clive Owen)/Lord Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance), Henry Denton (Ryan Phillipe, yes really)/Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban).
Yes, I should have listed owners then their servants, but I’m here for the servant porn and to learn how to serve so that’s who I’m paying attention to. Well-trained servants will always get my attention before the people they serve. Ironically, since servants are supposed to blend into the background.
There are many other home-servants bustling about, doing what needs to be done, but seamlessly.
There are also guests who didn’t bring servants with them, who must be attended to by the home-servants.
(If you’re curious about the Harry Potter connections, check the end of the review.)
I told you half of Britain was in this. The principle actors liked the script so much they opted not to be paid so it could be made.
Morris Weissman is a film producer visiting all the way from Hollywood, doing research for a Charlie Chan murder mystery involving a large number of English people in a country house and their servants. He’s been allowed along on this shooting party by accompanying a famous film star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam).
Norvello was an actual star, but the events of the film never happened.
Old William McCordle is rather an arse and is known for being handsy with the servants.
He gets himself killed. Twice. Poisoned then stabbed, approximately two-thirds of the way through the film. He’s one of those types. Several people had motive. Half of the film is trying to keep up with the gossip flying around.
Then Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and his much more capable assistant, Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) arrive to solve the case. (Is that a nod to the author of the Inspector Morse novels, Colin Dexter? Probably. Julian Fellows pre-Downton Abbey wrote the script.)
Aside from ol’ Misogyny McCordle and his couldn’t-happen-to-a-nicer-guy death, there is the sort of drama you’d expect from English films or books of a certain time. So-and-so’s father won’t agree to a marriage because whomever doesn’t have good enough prospects and that guy over there is going to cut back great aunt Constance’s allowance and whatEVER am I going to do with this rambling old house out in the country?
Oh, yes, and she is just so GAUCHE wearing that colour at this time of year, but I suppose some people don’t know any better.
You know. The sort of film that will bore some people straight to tears. I get it. White people. It’s a very white film. And not just because everyone in it is white (which they are), but because we’re talking rich white people in England in 1932 and their servants. Just… You really don’t get whiter than that.
It’s a baffling sort of film for some Americans.
Some people though (ahem, me) find it hysterical. It’s like if Merchant Ivory hired a comedy writer. There’s also some pretty serious drama going on, as well. And there’s time enough for both—the film is a little over two hours long. If you enjoy this sort of film it doesn’t feel that long.
If you don’t, it will seem like nothing happens and it’s just a bunch of spoiled people talking. A lot.
Watching it in the cinema when it first came out, the people behind me just didn’t get it. They couldn’t understand the accents…they didn’t laugh once… I don’t know what they thought they were going to see, but they were let down.
If you’re looking for examples of impeccable service—this is a good one. Besides simply watching people provide service—some things are blatantly explained when a person new to service makes a mistake. For example, below-stairs when the staff eat together, the staff sit according to the rank of the people they serve. The higher the rank of your ‘owner’ the higher up the table you sit.
As mentioned in another post, I saw this long before I worked out that I was service-oriented or that Victorian power exchange was my Victrola-powered jam, and even then I wanted Helen Mirren’s housekeeper dress and envied the hell out of Mary’s job as Countess Trentham’s maid. Most people would probably want to be the Countess. It should have been a clue for me, but nope.
If you’re into Downton Abbey or British period drama/comedy: 5/5
If you’re not and don’t care about service, either: DON’T
If you’re interested in service but think White people are boring, it’s pretty valuable and service is happening constantly: 4/5
As promised: The Harry Potter Connection
Maggie Smith: Professor McGonagall
Michael Gambon: Dumbledore mach 2 (i.e. GOBLET OF FIAH Dumbledore)
Geraldine Somerville: Harry’s Mother.
Sophie Thompson: Mafalda Hopkirk
John Atterbury: Phineas Nigellus Black
Stephen Fry (Read all of the audio books for the British version—Rowling trolled him and for good reason.)