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  • Benjamin May

The Shooting Party (1984) Review

It is Autumn 1913, and war is looming in Europe. In the English countryside, the aging Sir Randolph Nettleby invites a group of his peers for a weekend of pheasant shooting. Among them are the haughty Lord Gilbert Hartlip- who considers himself to be the best shot- as well as the urbane writer Lionel Stephens, who is in love with the married Lady Olivia Lilburn. As personalities and attitudes clash, the weekend proceeds, and Sir Randolph begins to see his way of life fading into obscurity.

Directed by Alan Bridges and based on Isabel Colegate’s novel of the same name, ‘The Shooting Party’ is a profound ensemble piece examining the waning of the aristocracy, in the last summer before The Great War. In some ways, it is comparable to Jean Renoir’s ‘The Rules of The Game,’ through its portrayal of the decadence and decline of the peerage, as well as its use of the motif of hunting as a metaphor for the violence and cruelty of the upper classes. ‘The Shooting Party’ is a more sombre affair, though, focusing on the contrasts between the rich and poor, as well as the difference in attitude between generations.

Colegate and Julian Bond’s screenplay contains sharp dialogue and astute characterisation, with an engaging narrative full of drama and pathos, examining a multitude of themes; namely the inevitability of change and the loss of innocence. The film shows how the aristocracy is losing its power and prestige, as the industrialization, urbanization and democratization of society are transforming the world; whilst foreshadowing the impact of the war, which will bring an end to the old order and usher in a new era.

Additionally, ’The Shooting Party’ highlights the innocence and ignorance of the rich, who are oblivious to the suffering of the lower classes. They enjoy their leisure activities and indulge in their affairs, without realizing the consequences of their actions. Moreover, it shows how the war will shatter their innocence and force them to face reality.

Bridges contrasts the beauty and harmony of nature with the brutality and chaos of battle. The character Cornelius, a pacifist, notes the similarity between hunting and war, saying, “It’s all part of the same thing. The same madness. The same contempt for life.” He also predicts that the coming war with Germany will be “the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen.”

Furthermore, ‘The Shooting Party’ reflects on the historical and social context of its time, as it depicts the last days of the Edwardian era, which was marked by stability, prosperity and elegance, but also by inequality, hypocrisy and callous decadence. The film also relates to contemporary issues, such as the environmental crisis and the social justice movement. It invites the viewer to question their values and choices, and implores one to learn from history.

‘The Shooting Party’ is grandly photographed by Fred Tammes, whose rich cinematography creates an earthy palette, contributing to the tone of Colegate and Bond’s narrative. His panoramic shots of the countryside convey the beautiful harmony of nature, while his close-ups of birds and other animals emphasizes the vulnerability and fragility of life. Moreover, he creates a stark contrast between light and dark colours, reinforcing the contrast between the upper and lower classes. Textured and striking, Tammes’ work lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

Also deserving of praise is John Scott’s mournful and reflective score, which makes excellent use of pieces by the likes of Elgar and Ralph Vaughn Williams, bringing additional drama to proceedings. Tom Rand’s costume design is also impressive, capturing the style and status of the characters, as well as the mood and period of the film. His work creates a contrast between the rural, natural setting, producing a visual tension between the artificial and the organic. Morley Smith’s detailed production design is of a particularly high quality, recreating the setting and atmosphere of the Edwardian era; essentially transforming Knebworth House and its grounds back in time to 1913.

An ensemble piece, ‘The Shooting Party’ features a large cast of talented actors working at the top of their games. His last film, James Mason showcases much vulnerability and sensitivity as Sir Randolph; delivering a nuanced performance that cements his reputation as one of cinema’s greatest ever actors. Edward Fox is superb as the steely, tight-lipped Lord Gilbert, while Gordon Jackson steals all his scenes as one of the local beaters with ease. The great John Gielgud and Judi Bowker both give masterful performances as the pacifist Cornelius and Lady Olivia, respectively, while Cheryl Campbell is consistently excellent in the role of the self-interested Lady Aline Hartlip. Additionally, Aharon Ipalé does laudable work as the Israeli Sir Reuben Hergesheimer; a charming outsider who watches the party with a cynical eye.

A fascinating piece of filmmaking, Alan Bridges’ ‘The Shooting Party’ is a must watch for fans of Merchant Ivory films- or indeed- cinema in general. Containing an engaging narrative, strong dialogue and sharp characterisation, the film fires on all cylinders; so to speak. Boasting breathtaking cinematography, lavish production design and a moving score, it is an evocative and atmospheric watch from start to finish. Featuring masterful performances from all in the cast- led by the late, great James Mason- Alan Bridges’ ‘The Shooting Party’ will truly blow you away.


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