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GOSFORD PARK, 2001
Movie Reviews!

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GOSFORD PARK,   MOVIE POSTERGOSFORD PARK, 2001
Movie Reviews

Directed by: Robert Altman
Starring: Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant,
Review by Virginia De Witt


SYNOPSIS:

In the fall of 1932, a group of aristocrats and their servants gather for a weekend shooting party in the English countryside. They are the guests of Sir William McCordle, the owner of Gosford Park. A murder is committed in the house over the course of the weekend. As the investigation into the death proceeds, a complex web of relationships between the upstairs world and its downstairs equivalent is ultimately revealed.

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REVIEW:

“Gosford Park”, along with “Short Cuts” (1993) is perhaps the best film of Robert Altman’s later career. It features an all star ensemble cast which had been a trademark of Altman’s work since MASH (1970). The focus on ensemble work was meant to allow Altman to explore character and relationships more thoroughly. He has told interviewers:

“I like to go on a journey with the actors.... What I’m looking for is occurrence, truthful human behavior. We’ve got a kind of road map and we’re making it up as we go along.”

“Gosford Park” is no exception. Julian Fellowes wrote the Oscar winning original screenplay based on an idea from Altman. However, even as the basic outline of the narrative was chronicled in the script, Altman always encouraged his actors to improvise. The result is a very naturalistic dramatic style, that does not focus on star performances. The aim instead is the creation a whole integrated world, in which characters move in and out of frame, the action always unpredictable and in constant motion. To this end, Altman used two cameras on “Gosford Park”, each always moving in the opposite direction from the other, so that the actors never had to feel that they needed to “perform” for the camera, but simply behave knowing that their actions would be picked up by one of the cameras. Likewise, the actors were all individually miked to facilitate overlapping dialogue.

This style of filmmaking can be hit and miss, precisely because it relies so heavily upon a group of actors discovering the moment on film. If it works, the immediacy of those moments can be thrilling. If not, you’re simply watching an interesting group of people whose stories never really cohere. Fortunately, “Gosford Park” is one of those times when Altman’s attempt at dramatic alchemy really comes together and the result is a successfully realized microcosm of British society in the inter-war years.

The contrast between the upstairs world of the aristocracy and the below stairs lives of their servants provides the dramatic tension in the film, as well as much of its humor. The film is largely concerned with the intricate interplay between the two worlds, more than it is with the plot. The movie is often discussed or written about as a murder mystery, but this description is deceptive. The murder of one of the aristocrats comes three quarters of the way into the film and its significance ultimately turns on its being the catalyst for the painful revelation of secrets held by two of the senior servants. Altman, while having fun with the glamor and catty viciousness of the upper classes, is ultimately more interested in the lives of the servants. It’s their problems, and relationships, with each other and more importantly with their masters, that he takes seriously. In a nice twist on the traditional country house formula, it is the obnoxious and bumbling aristos who are the comedic foils for the competent and observant servants who must put up with them. Stephen Fry’s inept inspector sums up the comic obliviousness of the upper class, when asked if he will be questioning the servants:

“I’m not interested in the servants. Only in people with a real connection to the dead man.”

The loose dramatic style favored by Altman means that his critique of this world is always pointed but never heavy handed. We hear or observe the behavior of these people and then quickly move on, so that a cumulative dramatic effect is achieved over the course of the film. Altman shows us, for instance, the callous indifference that the aristocrats exhibited toward their employees. Early in the story, Lady Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) blithely remarks that she intends to wear a soiled blouse for the next day’s shooting. Her maid, Mary (Kelly Macdonald) stays up half the night cleaning the blouse, for fear of displeasing her employer and perhaps losing her job, only to be casually told the following morning when she dutifully presents the cleaned garment to Lady Constance, that she doesn’t feel like wearing it anyway. In contrast, later in the film Altman offers us a lovely scene depicting the overworked servants’ pleasure in listening to house guest Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) sing and play piano. His drawing room audience couldn’t more disinterested in his music, but on the other side of the door, the maids and footman quietly dance together, or linger in doorways enjoying this unexpected treat.

The ensemble cast does not have a weak link. The highlights include Maggie Smith’s comic viciousness as Lady Trentham. She is joined upstairs by Kristen Scott Thomas as Sylvia McCordle, the lady of the manor, drenched in jewels and ennui; the epitome of jaded ‘30s glamor. Below stairs, Helen Mirren as the ultra competent housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, is perfectly controlled and controlling until events unravel following the murder. Emily Watson, as the tough, experienced Elsie, a maid who has had a long time relationship with Sir William, is smart and funny. Kelly Macdonald as the inexperienced Mary is affecting. Alan Bates, as Jennings, the butler has a moving scene alone in his room reacting to the revelation of his past as a conscientious objector. The wonder of this movie is that there are so many such moments amongst an incredibly strong cast, that repeat viewings are almost essential in order to experience the film fully.

“Gosford Park” is beautifully photographed by Andrew Dunn and benefits from authentic costume and production design. These features, combined with an ensemble cast that moves effortlessly through a complex combination of comedy, drama, murder mystery and social commentary makes this one of Robert Altman’s most accomplished and enjoyable films.

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