The Shooting Party: stodgy, genteel film detailing decay of British nobility

Alan Bridges, “The Shooting Party” (1985)

Mainly notable for being the last movie to feature James Mason before his death in 1984, this film about a group of British aristocrats gathering at a country mansion is a study in microcosm of the downfall of the British upper class and its values, and how their culture might have decayed over time. The film is set in the autumn of 1913, the last year before the outbreak of the Great War (World War 1) that engulfed much of Europe and destroyed monarchies in Germany and Russia.

A rich landowner, Sir Randolph Nettleby (Mason), invites several friends and their wives to his home to shoot grouse over a weekend. Other pastimes the host family and its guests enjoy include horse-riding, dancing, discussions, playing card games, going for walks through scenic country which includes a large pond for ducks and a fancy dress party. For much of the film, the audience is treated to investigations of the various foibles of Nettleby’s wealthy guests and his servants in a manner similar to Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” which also featured members of the British upper class gathering at an aristocrat’s home. Nettleby’s guests include Lord Gilbert Hartlip and his wife (Edward Fox and Cheryl Campbell) who more or less conduct an open marriage, as long as their liaisons remain secret: Lady Hartlip carries on an affair with a businessman (Aharon Ipale) who pays her gambling losses. Hartlip is jealous of another guest, barrister Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer), for his shooting skills; Stephens himself is besotted with yet another guest, Lady Olivia Lilburn (Judi Bowker) who is married to Lord Lilburn (Robert Hardy).

The film’s focus is mainly on Nettleby and his party of guests but covers, superficially at least, the life of the local rural working-men hired to drive the grouse towards the aristocrats, in particular Tom Harker (Gordon Jackson) who is also a poacher. Harker declares his support for the British politician David Lloyd George, a liberal-minded leader who initiated reforms that led to the development of the welfare state in the UK; he also happens to be friendly with Nettleby who sees him as having the simple country life he dreams of for himself. An outsider, Cornelius Cardew (John Gielgud), intrudes into the life of these men which revolves around the pub, waving slogans and pamphlets advocating animal rights and decrying blood sports and hunting. The upper and lower classes usually keep to themselves – a scene in which they have a break after a shooting session illustrates the social separation well: the aristocrats retire to a marquee for tea and champagne while Nettleby’s tenants gather around a table in the open air for beer – until a tragic hunting accident brings everybody together.

As the characters represent types, they bear most of the film’s investigation into the values and behaviour of the British aristocracy and so the movie appears plotless and lacking in direction, shifting from one set of characters and their interactions to another set. The pace is steady with the focus on people’s dialogue and there’s very little action until near the end. The symbolism can be over-obvious and clumsy – it doesn’t seem likely that a group of upper class men smoking cigars after dinner would be talking about the descent of Western civilisation and of their class at a time when British power was at its peak and controlled half the planet – and limits character development, no matter how well individual actors play their roles. Nettleby as portrayed by Mason is a warm if world-weary gentleman, dignified and gracious, troubled about the legacy he and his kind might be leaving to his country. Nettleby presides over his world as a benevolent but firm patriarch; his meeting with Cardew who disrupts a shooting session appears self-deprecatory and humorous but is actually a subtle put-down that asserts the aristocracy’s right of control over the birds and other animals that dwell on his properties. Cardew either takes the hint or allows himself to be led into a conversation about his pamphlets and the men soon part on good terms.

Nettleby represents a generation of leaders who made the British Empire what it was in 1913 but is concerned that the next generation of aristocrats, represented by the Hartlips, is self-indulgent and hedonistic now that the nobility has given up its role of ruling the country. The Hartlips represent the impotence of the new generation of upper class people: Lord Hartlip is obsessed about his shooting skills and his wife is addicted to gambling; her dependence on her lover for money in exchange for sex demonstrates the aristocracy’s dependence on self-made wealthy men to survive. (Lady Hartlip’s addiction might hint at the emptiness of her life as an aristocrat’s wife, forbidden by convention to do any meaningful work.) The implication is the Hartlips and their generation will sell themselves into a bondage they don’t understand to maintain their reputations. The secret liaison between Stephens and Lady Lilburn shows both the contrast and complementarity between the new world of commerce, brash and competitive, as represented by Stephens, and a more socially conscientious, well-meaning layer of the upper class, represented by Lady Lilburn. The lady rebuffs the barrister in spite of her attraction to him. Lady Lilburn’s husband appears typical of many upper class people in lacking the imagination, creativity and enterprise his class needs to survive in the new world to come.

The Hartlips’ obsession to keep up appearances and past (but fading) reputations and Stephens’s own competitve behaviour to please Lady Lilburn collide in a shooting incident in which Lord Hartlip, goaded by his wife, breaks an unspoken gentleman’s code by firing his rifle after the shooting session is declared finished. He ends up wounding Harker. Harker’s death represents the fate of soldiers from across the British Empire who were to die in the killing fields of Verdun and elsewhere during the War. Mason as Nettleby, watching over Harker, delivers a moving performance as he prays with the dying man  and sees this icon of simple country life slip away. Surely at this moment Nettleby realises the real incompetence and powerlessness of his class; he has had control over Harker’s life as the poacher’s landlord but cannot control the manner and moment of Harker’s death. Hartlip, standing by, is paralysed by the consequences of his senseless action and can only offer financial compensation – putting himself into his cuckold’s pockets.

The film overall is stodgy due to the burdensome symbolism, the earnest tone, the slow pace and apparent lack of purpose but there are some fine acting performances from Mason, Bowker, Fox, Jackson and Gielgud in very restricted roles. A small subplot in which Nettleby’s grandson is always looking for his lost pet duck with the help of a maid provides amusement and lightens the movie’s serious tone but even this diversion has its dark side as there’s the possibility that the duck might get shot. The movie is worth watching twice at least: the first time to see the entire story and the second time to absorb important details about the various characters, minor as well as major ones, and what these details tell us about the British aristocracy and its customs in the early 20th century. “The Shooting Party” is very genteel and oblique in its approach, and this isn’t likely to appeal to a wide audience who perhaps need to learn the film’s lesson about upper class arrogance and incompetence.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

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