Plot & Subplots
Since there are so many characters in this movie, understanding their relationships and the complexity involved can be difficult (that's why it's great to watch "Gosford Park" more than once!) While the main plot arc is not complicated on itself, the beauty is in the fact the movie is not what it seems to be: a murder-mystery done in best Agata Christie style.
This page explains main plot as well as the most prominent subplots. Needles to say, it is spoiler heavy.
The main plot art is, despite everything, relatively simple. A group of wealthy British (and a few American) people gather in the home of Sir William McCordle for a shooting weekend. Guests bring their servants, so there are actually two groups of people in Gosford Park: masters (guests) and servants. We follow the story from both point of views. Everything that happens, happens during this weekend (4 days).
And what happens? Guests gather, they talk, they show who they are. Meanwhile, servants reside downstairs and have their own stories. Then, on the day 2, during the night, Ser William is murdered and police investigation starts. Seems like a perfect background for a classic murder-mysrery and a typical "whodunnit".
Only that it isn't. Murder in "Gosford Park" serves more as a red herring than the focus point of the film. Yes, the murder gets solved in the end, but it's not what the film is about. That's why people who wanted to see a mystery movie got disappointed. Because "Gosford Park" is acually a social study. More important than whodunnit element, the movie explored the complexity of the British class system during the 1930s. That's why the accent is on complex interaction between the characters, especially in regard to upper vs servant class. As people on TvTropes put it: "the whodunnit plot is used as a device to examine the characters and their relationships with one another, and as a reason for the film to come to an end".
The movie doesn't really have a protagonist, though character of Mary can serve this purpose in some aspects, giving the fact she is, in fact the one who solves the mustery and many key scenes involve her. But there are also key scenes that don't, especially in regard to Sir William and Lady Sylvia, so she can't be really seen as a protagonist.
Like mentioned above, this is not the main point of the film. But to those really interested, here are the spoilers: There are actually two people who tried to kill Sir William. First is Robert Parks, his illegimate son who wanted to take a revenge. He stabbed Sir William- only he didn't. All he stabbed was a corpse. Someone else killed Sir William and he had no idea. Who killed him? Mrs. Wilson. She poisoned Sir William because she realized Robert Parks- who is actually her son- came to Gosford Park to kill him. She didn't want her son to be a murderer (and hanged for his crime), so she killed Sir William herself. Needles to say, Robert Parks had no idea about it, and (arguably) he had no idea about Mrs Wilson being his mother. As you can see, the mustery and the storyline involved doesn't seem particularly unique or special. However, the way it was handled, the acting, the point not being in who is whose lost son and whodunnit- those are the things that make "Gosford Park" truly unique and one of the best Altman's work.
There are many subplots in the film, mainly revolving around class dynamics and, to a lesser extend, gender (and sexuality). Characters have complex and often tense relationships, often involved with the upstaris/downstairs dichotomy. Some of the subplots, however, are less explored than the others. They are just hinted, but they are there and seem very real, if you manage to reconstruct them. Subplots revolve around the characters and, often, their social status or their past.
Sir William McCordle is a host of the party and the murder victim. Still, he is hardly what one would call an innocent. His past was revealed, in bits and pieces, after his death. At first, he seems like a grumpy middle aged man who doesn't care much about his snobbish wife (lady Silvia) and likes to talk about subjects snobs find inapropriate. He goes everywhere with his dog. Some servants show more respect for him than his wife.
All in all, he seems almost sympathetic. Then, he is murdered and we learn that he was actually a monster who had a practice of sleeping around- a lot, whit whoever woman they could find, especially with girls working in his factory. He continued this practice till he died: at the time of the shooting weekend, he is involved with the head housemaid, Elsie and his wife's sister, At the time of the shooting weekend, he has an affair with his wife sister Louisa Stockbridge. Not only that, but he is very cruel when it comes to children: he sets strict rules. A woman should give a baby up for an adoption, or else he'll fire her. Those who decide to give babies (and keep their jobs) are told that nice families are found for the babies. Which is a lie: he sends babies, his own children, to orphanages. This practice continues for years (several decades at least). One of his children who grew up in the orphanage (Robert Parks) decides to take a revenge and murder him.
Robert Parks grew up in an orphanage, believing his mother was dead. At the age of 18, he discovered he is an illegimate son of Sir William and decided to murder him. That's why he decided to become a servant in a family that is close to Sir William (Stockbridges), looking for an opportunity to come close to Sir William and murder him. He does stab him, but doesn't realize Sir William is already dead. By realizing this, he seems indifferent, not wanting to know who killed Sir William. During his stay at Gosford Park, he flirts with Mary, and he even confeses of stabbing Sir William to her. Also, he seems unaware that his mother is, in fact, alive, and that is Mrs Wilson.
Mrs Wilson is a head housekeeper. She was one of the girls that Sir William took advantage of, and she got pregnant. She gave her baby son up for an adoption, and she immidiately realized that Robert Parks (Parks is her maiden name) is her son. Also, she realizes why he is in Gosford Park, and, wanting to protect him, kills Sir William first (by poisoning him). Her logic is clear: stabbing a corpse is not a crime and her son is safe of any procetucion or death penalty. She reveals this to Mary, but seem unafected by the fact she is the one who might be prosecuted. At the end, however, we learn she is not as cold and rational as she seems, because there is one thing that does upset her: the fact her son would never recognize her as his mother.Mary Maceachren is the closest thing to a protagonist in this movie. She not only solves the mustery (well, basically, Parks and Wilson reveal their secrets to her), but also serves the role of introducing the audience of the customs and ways that rule the class dynamics. Henry Denton tries to rape her (Robert Parks saves her), and she has a brief moment with Parks himself (and it's obvious they like each other). At the end, she decides not to tell anyone what she learned about the murder.
Mrs Croft is a head coock and appears to be a rival to Mrs Wilson. Most of the film womans seem to despise each other. But they not, and the nature of their antagonism is complex. They are sisters, both impregnated by Sir William. Only, Mrs Croft decided to keep her child and was fired. Sadly, her child died, and Mrs Wilson begged Sir William to give her a job back. This, and the fact they chose differently when it comes to keeping the children, sets antagonism between the sisters. But they also care for each other, as seen in the end- Mrs Croft is the one who consoles Mrs Wilson when she is bursting in tears with the fact her son won't recognize her as his mother. As Mrs Croft points out, he is alive, and that is the most important thing.
Constance, Countess of Trentham is aunt to Lady Sylvia, Sir William's wife. Despite claiming not to have a snobbish bone in her body, it's quite the opposite. She has financial troubles, and is dependant on Sir William's allowance. Because of these financial problems, she is forced to hire cheap and inexperienced lady's maid (Mary)- and it's obvious she's not satisfied with her work. Loves to know all the current gossip, and her biggest fear is that Sir William is going to cut off her allowance.
Lady Sylvia is Sir William's cold and snobbish wife. She cut cards with her sister Louisa for the right to marry him, and now is bored in the marriage. His death comes as a relief for her and she reallu doesn't seem to care who killed him. It is implied she had her share of lovers, and we witnes one of her affairs, with a servant Henry Denton. When she realizes Denton is not a servant but a Hollywood actor, she seems to lose the interest in him.
Louisa Stockbridge is Sylvia's sister. Their fahter wanted one of them to marry Sir William, so they cut cards for him. She lost and married Lord Stockbridge instead, but she's having an affair with Sir William.
Raymond Stockbridge is Louisa's husband. It is obvious Sylvia wants to get involved with him, but he ignores her.
Lieutenant-Commander Anthony Meredith is Lavinia's husband with huge finansial problems. He is planning to save his finances through Sir William's investment in his Army supply business, but Sir William wants to back out of this deal. The day of the hunting trip, he almost shots Sir William in the ear.
Lavinia Meredith is Sylvia's another sister. She is mad at her sisters for not wanting to help her family by making Sir William agree on the deal with her husband.
Isobel McCordle is Sir William's daughter. she has an affair with Freddie Nesbitt and fears that her father might find out about it.
Freddie Nesbitt is a friend of the family, another one with financial problems. Has (had) an affair with Isobel, and also knows some of her secrets, so he uses this in order to make her persuade her father to give him a job.
Mabel Nesbitt is Frieddie Nesbitt's wife. He married her for the money, which is now long gone. He is ashamed of her and everybody else seem to agree. She is the only woman without a lady's maid, which is considered shamefull. It is obvious she is impressed by Ivor Novello.
Ivor Novello is an actor and a distant cousin to Sir William. He is the only real-life character. He takes a bit too much liberty in entertaining the guests in the drawing room
Morris Weissman is an American, a Hollywood producer who wants to research British lifestyle for his new film, a myrder-mystery set in a large country house. Most of the guests laugh at his silly American ways. It is hinted that he's a homosexual and probably having an affair with Henry Denton.
Henry Denton is a Hollywood actor posing as Weissman and Novello's servant. Hos Scottish accent is unconvincing, and so is his behaviour. Has sex with Lady Sylvia, and tries to do the same with Elsie and Mary. After revealing to be an actor, servants begin to treat them without respect and with a little revenge.
George is a footman who seems to know all the house gossip. He is also sarcastic and doesn't seem to be serious about his job. "Accidentally" spills hot coffee on Denton.
Rupert Standish is invited by Lady Sylvia for the sole purpose to court Isobel.
Jeremy Blond is Lord Standish's friend. Mary caught him having sex with Bertha in the scullery.
Jennings is Sir William's butler. He is also a World War I deserter and conscientious objector, for which he served some time in a prison.
Dorothy is a room maid in love with Jennings. The feelings don't seem to be mutual. She is under both Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Wilsonís jurisdiction, which often leads to further disagreements between the sisters.
Probert is Sir William's valet and the only who seems devastated by his death.
Arthur is a footman. He is homosexual and wants to be Ivor Novello's servant. George sarcastically remarks he wanted to be Novello's servant so he could see him in his underwear.
Barnes is commander Meredith's valet who overhears him saying that he was glad that Sir William died, because his investment in now secure.
Lewis is Lady Sylvia's loyal lady's maid. As Elsie put it, she place more importance on Lady Sylviaís needs than her own motherís.
Inspector Thompson is a useless detective who comes to investigate the murder. He is unable to deduct or even notice the evidence. Unsucessfully tries to present himself to the guests, but nobody is particularly interested. Seems to believe a murderer must be one of the guests and doesn't even bother to really investigate servants.
Constable Dexter is Thompson's assistant who seems more competent at his job.