The best tragedies of manners rely on the viewer believing that protagonists are driven by binding social constraints to keep up appearances through the most grueling circumstances. Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes’s directorial effort attempts that balancing act, but the tale, adapted from Nigel Balchin’s A Way Through the Wood, doesn’t quite set motivations at the required angles.
Tom Wilkinson is aces as James, a respected London solicitor whose young wife, Anne, gets tangled up in ultimately harmful frivolity when he’s away. Emily Watson plays Anne, an expert in ambivalent dissemblance, with a coquettish anguish, as intrigue develops around a hit-and-run killing near their country home. After suspicion falls on local playboy Bill Bule (a chewily droll Rupert Everett), we learn of Anne’s deeper involvement. Plans are hatched as the central pair’s marriage crumbles, and James must endure his wife’s ongoing affair while parsing the legal and moral implications of the incident. The rub is that fussy, cuckolded James is incrementally trapped into an amoral position. Fellowes’s larger goal seems to be making sympathetic characters of Anne and Bule, who for all their lovey-doveyness never emerge as much more than rich twits à la The Great Gatsby—the ones who smash things up and retreat into their carelessness.
Fellowes says in his press notes that he wanted to create a “moral maze.” He reminds us that good people do bad things, and bad ones generally have a good side—or at least become quite ill and incur our sympathy. Unfortunately, we’re overdosing on those kinds of mitigations. Judging from the current politics in both the U.K. and the U.S., people are all too happy to give powerful bunglers the benefit of the doubt, as if within our manicured hedges there’s no such thing as a bad guy at all.