Beautifully rendered, but dramatically limited, The Shooting Party is the kind of film that seems to impress some viewers because they take it for nostalgic allegory. They see it as an "important" metaphor, disguised as a look back at a romantic period in history right on the cusp of irreversible change, with a cast of characters who realize that an upheaval of their comfortable lives is imminent, but who are powerless to stop it. All of this isn't exactly hard to ascertain in The Shooting Party, particularly when the lead character literally spells out the film's parable right off the bat. I remember seeing The Shooting Party when it first came out in 1985, and hearing a friend of mine rhapsodize - as if she had discovered something hidden and secret from most viewers - about the film's themes of the vanishing usefulness of the English aristocracy before the advent of World War I, with a weekend shooting party on a country estate as a metaphor for this coming cultural transformation. But nothing could be easier than discerning what The Shooting Party means in its more obvious way. If you get lost amid the scenery and meticulously recreated, plush surroundings, don't worry; a character is bound to tell you directly what it's all about.
Rather than working as portentous herald, The Shooting Party is far more successful at presenting a melancholy treatise on the romantic illusions between bored, wealthy aristocrats, as well as showcasing a handful of terrific performances by some of the best English actors working in films at the time. There are no characters or emotional situations in The Shooting Party that we haven't seen in several other prior films, but what is dramatized in The Shooting Party is so carefully and thoughtfully presented, that it becomes a surprisingly effective experience despite a sneaking sense of deja vu and the baldface manipulations of the allegorical references. Chief among the delights of The Shooting Party is a magnificent, mournful final performance by that most underrated actor, James Mason. Playing Sir Randolph Nettleby, Mason has no need of a script's pretentious metaphor or fable to convey the ironic passing of a cultivated, sheltered, privileged life he both loves and despises; Mason's very presence, his actor's aura, with his supremely patient, cultured, yet ever-so-subdued scorn, is the very epitome of the emotions he's enacting in The Shooting Party. It may be his greatest performance in a career filled with great performances.
The Shooting Party takes place on a vast English country estate in Autumn of 1913. Sir Randolph Nettleby (James Mason) and his wife Lady Minnie (Dorothy Tutin) are hosting a weekend shooting party for their guests. They include foolish, insular Lord Bob Lilburn (Robert Hardy) and his young, sensitive and beautiful wife Lady Olivia (Judi Bowker); Lord Gilbert Hartlip (Edward Fox), a cold, hard, professional shooter, and his wife Lady Aline (Cheryl Campbell); Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer), a compassionate, educated gentleman; Ida Nettleby (Sarah Badel), the daughter-in-law of Sir Randolph and Lady Minnie, and her daughters Cicily (Rebecca Saire) and Violet (Mia Fothergill), and sons Marcus (Warren Saire) and Osbert (Nicholas Pietrek); Sir Reuben Hergesheimer, a rich business associate of Sir Randolph; and Count Tibor Rakassyi, a moneyed Hungarian prince.
While the overall aim of The Shooting Party goes awry in obvious overstatement, what it does very well, under the direction of Alan Bridges, is to give the viewer isolated, perfectly polished gems of scenes that illuminate a particular facet of a character's personality. There's an amazing, justly famous scene between Mason's Sir Randolph and vegetarian animal rights pamphleteer Cornelius Cardew (John Gielgud). During the height of the shoot, Cardew foolishly walks down the line of shooters, carrying a placard denouncing their slaughter, before he is brought over to Sir Randolph. The viewer expects Sir Randolph to angrily dismiss him, but instead, the tolerant, inquisitive Sir Randolph engages Cardew in a discussion on the quality of Cardew's pamphlet printing. Cardew eagerly warms to Sir Randolph's obvious interest in his efforts (although Sir Randolph would never agree with the thoughts contained in the pamphlet), and a benign mutual sense of fraternity passes between the two men, two men of words and ideas. It's a magical moment in The Shooting Party, and it far surpasses any of the film's more obvious strainings at being "meaningful" about something larger than itself. It's these kinds of revelatory moments in The Shooting Party, usually facilitated by the superlative cast and not necessarily the script, that makes The Shooting Party worthwhile viewing.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.