Gosford Park (2001)

D: Robert Altman

S: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon

An astonishing cast provides Bob Balaban and Robert Altman's pastiche of 1930s murder mysteries with a touch of class which saves it from generic tedium. Based on "an idea" by Balaban and Altman (scripted by actor Julian Fellowes), Gosford Park is very little more than an excuse to put a cast of terrific characters actors on screen together portraying a variety of upstairs and downstairs types at an English country retreat over one of those eventful weekends in which someone is murdered and everyone's a suspect. Actually, most viewers will have no trouble picking out the killer and it really doesn't matter. Quite deliberately, the film is uninterested in resolving the whodunnit aspects of its plot. It is far more concerned with exploring the dynamics of the relationships between the characters and between the characters and the visual spaces they inhabit. The film is more La Règle du Jeu than And Then There Were None, which may either confuse and frustrate or thrill and delight you, depending on your taste. The fact that it has neither the social penetration of La Règle du Jeu nor the escapist pleasures of And Then There Were None may do likewise.

If you really need to know, the story concerns the events which transpire when a large group of upper crust types and their faithful retainers are assembled at an English country retreat over an eventful weekend Seriously though, each character comes with a sub-plot, each sub-plot comes with two parts split between the upstairs and the downstairs. There's nominally wealthy Maggie Smith (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), and her servant Kelly McDonald (Trainspotting). Yet early on as lord of the manor Michael Gambon (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) bickers with ice-cold wife Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient), we learn that Smith is likely to come begging for money and is more tolerated than welcome. The same applies to most of the other guests, including, for example, Jeremy Northam (Enigma) as actor Ivor Novello, invited because he is a relative, but fulfilling a role as pianist and entertainer when required. He is accompanied by Bob Balaban (Best in Show) as an American movie producer, the only real outsider in the group, and he in turn is accompanied by Ryan Phillippe (Cruel Intentions) as a suspiciously-accented valet. The list goes on, and almost every face is familiar, including relatively heavy hitters such as Derek Jacobi (Gladiator), Emily Watson (The Boxer), Alan Bates (Hamlet), Helen Mirren (Cal) and Richard E. Grant (The Little Vampire) as domestic servants.

When a murder is eventually committed, there are several likely suspects, but when the police inspector who arrives to investigate the crime turns out to be Stephen Fry, you are again reminded that this movie is about casting. Because Fry is primarily a comedian (his work in Wilde a notable exception), generic expectation is immediately subverted: this man will not solve the crime. Gosford Park has little to nothing to do with narrative storytelling and everything to do with the stories which emerge out of observing actors representing the dynamics of human behaviour.

Altman has never really been all that interested in narrative anyway, except insofar as it provides a loose framework around which his wandering camera can mount a series of long takes and slippery movements which illustrate action. From MASH to Short Cuts, Popeye to Pret-A-Porter Altman has been stylistically consistent. Gosford Park is clearly an Altman film, and is thus filled with small details which pack the screen while the camera reconnoitres. It is a much more rapidly edited film than usual though, intercutting between the multiplicity of stories very quickly indeed so that the audience does not lose touch with any of them. This has the effect of actually defeating the film at some level, because there is sometimes not enough time to appreciate the nuances in performance. Altman doesn't allow the expected amount of space for the audience to delve into what they are seeing and make up their own minds about its significance. It is this which pushes the film away from La Règle du Jeu in spite of superficial resemblances to it, and also in spite of what seems to have been an attempt on some level to make points about class and society.

Gosford Park is most enjoyable simply as a showcase for acting. Though none of the performances is particularly stunning, all of them are good. This makes the film a very pleasurable experience. The audience is invited to sit back and experience actors interpreting characters in an environment which has been richly kitted out by production and costume designers to provide them with a setting. Pauline Kael once claimed that people primarily respond to actors in film, and she was, of course, a great admirer of Altman. I'm not sure even Kael would have applauded all that much at Gosford Park though, as there is not much to respond to other than the acting.

Though the film bizarrely won an Oscar for best original screenplay, the characters are clichéd to the point of parody (shades of The Long Goodbye, perhaps?), and the plot is a mismash of old standards.The motivations of the characters are always intentionally obvious, which may work from a polemical point of view as an expose of the genre, but leaves the audience with little to be surprised by. This makes the job of observing these actors more voyeuristic than it probably should be. With no real thematic or sociological depth to sustain the characterisations, the film becomes pretty much an acting exercise. Entertaining though it is on this level, it isn't cinema as such, nor is it really drama.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.