The Shooting Party marks one of the final films of one of James Mason, and one of his three films that were released posthumously. It is slightly muddled what exactly was his final film, filmed or released, but this seems to be his final leading performance in a theatrically released film. Then again the leading designation is also a bit muddled given the film's wavering focus, Mason's character Sir Randolph seems to stand out the most, although that might have more to do with Mason than the writing or the direction of the film. This allows time to just about everyone in and around Sir Randolph's grounds but Randolph seems at the center of it all. This role is as well suited for Mason as every suit he ever wore in a film. The role of the aristocrat is naturally perfect for Mason who handles refinement with such an flawless fashion, while still creating a definite command through it. This serves well Sir Randolph who is well respected throughout the film though his actions are fairly limited, this view is earned through Mason's performance which exudes the precise sort of stature needed for an old landowner.
Mason's performance often is reactionary yet the notable thing about this is he is never overshadowed despite the nature of his role. Mason makes Sir Randolph feel as the core of the film, even when it is covering some other conflict or interpersonal relationship away from him. Mason is brilliant in his reactions as his face is never silent even when he is not speaking. Randolph differs from many of his family members and fellow aristocrats by seeming to hold true a different set of values than the rest of them. This actually is barely verbalized during the film but rather all in Mason's work. Mason is terrific in portraying the exasperation and even confusion in Randolph as he ponders the way his wife is caught up in the society, as well as the concern at the merciless competitive nature of his younger guests. Mason always carries a certain grace that suggests man whose own beliefs are of a simpler, perhaps purer motive that also separates him somewhat from the rest. Mason's presence in any given scene adds a much needed additional nuance to the film whether it is that mute commentary, or even a more positive element such as the warmth suggested when observing the children on the estate.
There are moments when Sir Randolph is allowed to speak, and these are the best moments of the film. There is one particularly effective scene where an anti-hunting activist, played by John Gielgud, comes around to protest the shooting party. Mason and Gielgud are both rather perfect in the scene, as they instantly strike up a chemistry in the moment. They have a different single belief yet Mason and Gielgud convey well that the two are kindred spirits in terms of their personal natures. The two make the scene even rather amusing by showing how properly the two of them disagree on the point of hunting all the while the two come to an understanding of sorts as Sir Randolph notices how nicely made the activist's pamphlets are made. The two of them manage to be hilarious by actually keeping conversation so natural despite how quickly the two go from a proper debate to a mutual admiration of good printing. As I wrote before Sir Randolph perhaps was not even meant to stand out as much as he does, but Mason's performance ensures this. Mason work goes beyond merely making Randolph a compelling character, but also carries through the subtext around the story. Mason builds well almost a sense of dread in so carefully setting up those moments of a detachment in Randolph to the rest of the shooting party. The film climax involves one of the shooters' beaters, the poor men who get the birds to fly to be shot, is accidentally shot and severely injured. The one man who seems to recognize the severity of the situation is Randolph. Mason is outstanding in this as he almost has Randolph fully reveal his humane values all in this moment, which he so effectively alluded to throughout the film, in his earnest show of empathy for the injured man. Mason is so powerful as he tries to save the man, and completely heartbreaking as he sees the man dying in front of him. It's such a beautifully rendered moment that is only more poignant knowing it would be some of the last words he ever said on screen. It ends the film in such an affecting manner as not only the loss of the man is felt, the loss of a time as well, but also the loss of the talent of one of the greatest actors who ever lived.