Quintessential American director Robert Altman ("Cookie's Fortune," "Nashville") travels to England to explore an upstairs/downstairs Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Set between the two world wars, a huge, largely British ensemble cast is gathered for at a shooting party organized at the country estate of "Gosford Park."
This light social commentary cum murder mystery is obviously choreographed by a director of great skill, yet the sheer number of the players allow few to really register in a mystery which offers few surprises.
Young Mary Maceachram (Kelly Macdonald, "Trainspotting"), new maid to Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone") largely acts as the audience's portal to two distinctly different, yet equally socially structured, worlds. All accounts of upstairs are presented through the eyes of servants, even when such high-ranking ones as First footman George (Richard E. Grant, "The Player") are reduced to invisibility by people like Lord Rupert Standish (Laurence Fox) (who proclaims at his intrusion 'Don't worry, it's nobody.')
Countess Constance, aunt of Lady of the house Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas, "Life As a House"), is just one of the many people beholden to her nephew by marriage, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon, "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover"), a new money boor who's spent his life attempting to bed as many women as possible. As Constance asks Mary not to be discreet, except, of course, regarding herself, Mary begins picking up pieces of upstairs gossip, but her downstairs counterparts offer her every bit as much melodrama.
Head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren, "Greenfingers") explains to visiting American valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillipe, "The Way of the Gun") that he will be referred to by the other servants with the name of his employer, Mr. Weissman (Bob Balaban, "The Majestic"), a film producer researching country house parties for his upcoming "Charlie Chan in London." This establishes the social structure for visitors who will be under the domain of Head butler Jennings (Alan Bates, "An Unmarried Woman"). Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins, "Wolf"), the cook, resents her better Mrs. Wilson, but runs her own mini-empire in the kitchen. Head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson, "Cradle Will Rock"), who's having an affair with Sir William, sizes up her employers for her temporary roommate Mary with 'She's horrible, but he's alright.'
As Lady Sylvia takes lascivious interest in visiting valet Denton, staid Mrs. Wilson makes note of withdrawn visiting valet Parks (Clive Owen, "Croupier") and Sir William dips into his own household staff, the household bustles and snobbery reigns. Trouble of a criminal sort first pokes up its head when the blundering William is strafed with hunting shot. When his corpse is discovered later in his study, comically incompetent Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry, "Wilde") arrives and seals off the house.
Debuting screenwriter Julian Fellowes mines "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Upstairs Downstairs" for this overpopulated souffle. As improvisation was encouraged during this shoot, it's impossible to know whom to credit for some of the witty and cutting dialogue, although the story idea belongs to producer/star Bob Balaban. Production design by Altman's son Stephen ("Dr. T and the Women") perfectly captures the place and period, as does the work of Costume Designer Jenny Beavan ("The Remains of the Day") and Hair Designer Jan Archibald ("The Shooting Party"). Altman's direction is impeccable if his material overreaches. Dame Maggie Smith is the standout of a cast which also boasts Charles Dance, Jeremy Northam, Derek Jacobi, and Sophie Thompson.
"Gosford Park" carries none of the weight of the superior mid war British house party film "The Remains of the Day," a devastating look at class structure, but it still gets its barbs in amidst its comical mystery amalgamation.
It is November of 1932 and Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) are hosting a shooting party for their family and friends at their magnificent country manor, but, unbeknownst to them and their servants, there is foul play afoot. Maestro Robert Altman brings us upstairs and downstairs with the English gentry in his first foray into the murder mystery genre with "Gosford Park."
"Gosford Park" is the work of an accomplished master who is well used to mustering the talents of a large ensemble cast - see "The Player" and "Shortcuts" as examples. Here, the maestro seems to have lost his usual control of his actors, as the story takes on a weird life of its own. What starts off as a look into the "Upstairs, Downstairs" life of a microcosm of pre-Hitler English society soon twists into a sort of "Murder on the Orient Express" meets "The Pink Panther.".
Following a day of quail shooting led by the lord of the manor, the evening celebration at Sir William's (Michael Gambon) luxurious home is abruptly halted when that family patriarch is found murdered in his study. But, there is some doubt as to the manner of Sir William's demise. Although a knife is sticking out of his chest, he appears to have already been dead when he was stabbed. Enter Inspector Thompson from Scotland Yard and things turn silly as the bumbling cop contaminates the crime scene and is without a clue when it comes to forensics. What began as a class study of the servants and their wealthy employers turns quickly to a whodunit, but the viewer is left out in the cold, not caring at all who done it.
This is a huge ensemble cast that do a decent job of creating their period characters, although no one stands out to any notable degree. There are just too many characters for the screenplay (by Julian Fellowes from a story idea by Altman and costar Bob Balaban) to do justice. With so many principal parts (the cast list is, literally, pages long) there is scant time to develop any of the players with more than cursory attention. Sir William is loathed by many and the characters, both gentry and servant, have motive when is comes to looking for suspects to his murder.
The focal character, with whose eyes we watch the drama unfold, is Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), the naïve maid to Constance, the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), a penniless aristocratic cousin who loathes Sir William but depends on his annual stipend. Their arrival at Gosford Park begins our journey into the lives of the English rich and not-so-rich and their servants. Added to this mix is the arrival of American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), who makes Charlie Chan flicks, and his rather strange Scottish manservant, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe). Morris, invited by Sir William's cousin, Brit film star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), is researching material for his latest Asian super detective movie, a murder mystery based in an English manor. Irony upon irony builds up as fact follows fiction and mayhem ensues.
The production is on a par with the grandiose casting. The setting of Sir William's manor house is a sumptuous locale and has the opulence to convey the upper class wealth of its nouveau riche owner. Costumes (by Jenny Beavan), too, fit the 30's period setting, depicting an affluence that the upcoming war years will soon change. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn keeps the camera work fluid as he follows all of the many characters through their duties and their deeds.
Helmer Altman is garnering some high praise for "Gosford Park" and I can see why some would laud the effort of the auteur in mustering his considerable filmmaking forces. There is an airiness to the film's mood as it flitters between the many, many story threads but I have a problem with the slightness of the story and the trite manner in which it is told. It is the work of a master but it is not a masterwork. It is an entertaining little ditty, though merely the flexing of this filmmaker's muscle. I give it a B.
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