Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Bob Balaban, Jeremy Northam, Maggie Smith, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard E. Grant, Alan Bates, Ryan Phillippe, Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Clive Owen, Claudie Blakley, Charles Dance, Tom Hollander, Camilla Rutherford, Geraldine Somerville, Laurence Fox, Sophie Thompson, Natasha Wightman, James Wilby

MPAA Rating: R (for some language and brief sexuality)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 12/26/01

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Chalk up Gosford Park as another distinguished success for director Robert Altman, who at 76 and in his own quiet way seems edgier than many directors more than half his age. With this film, he has given us an old-fashioned British murder mystery where the murder itself is the least important thing to happen. Instead of concentrating on an investigation where the killerís identity and motivation are hidden only until a big melodramatic finish, Gosford Park is first and foremost a class and character study about the lives of those who live in opulence and those who serve them. The murder in question doesnít occur until a bit more than an hour into the film, and up to that point, Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes manage to establish efficient characterization for almost thirty equally important rolesóimportant not in terms of plotting, but in terms of maintaining a fascinating perspective on early 20th century aristocratic society. We already know the difference between servants and their masters, but Gosford Park goes a step further and subtly comments upon the system as a whole and perhaps why it ultimately faded away.

Set in November 1932, the story brings together an assortment of characters to attend a shooting party held by Sir William (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas). Guests for the weekend include the Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), Sir Williamís sister who seemingly depends on his allowance, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), Lady Sylviaís sister whose livelihood at one time depended on the cutting of a deck of cards, and a wide assortment of others. From the other side of the ocean are Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), who handles the Charlie Chan films, actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), whose move from high society to Hollywood does not bode well with all, and Weissmanís valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), whose position is suspiciously unnecessary for a man like Weissman. Making sure all of the socialitesí necessities are provided are the guestsí various valets. Within the household itself are Jennings (Alan Bates), the butler, Probert (Derek Jacobi), Sir Williamís valet, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), the housekeeper, and Elsie (Emily Watson), the head housemaid.

The film doesnít simply paint the obvious difference between the servants and their masters. Within each of these divisions we see further divisions. There is a hierarchy established here. At the top of the upper-class tier are those who are born into wealth. Working for your money is a sign of inferiority. So a man whose father was rich simply because his father was rich would be seen as more important than a man whose father was rich from being involved in industry. The Americans are obviously held in contempt because of the lack of a face-value class system and the ideology of working for your fortune. Like all of the great works about the aristocracy, Gosford Park knows how fundamentally trite the system is and has fun at once mocking and observing it work, knowing change is long overdue. The script doesnít stop with the aristocrats, though, and we see a social structure develop among the servants as well. In one scene, the dinner table arrangement of guests and help mirror each other, but whereas the guests talk of business and gossip, the servants talk of their lives. We learn where they came from and how and why they ended up where they are today.

Itís this attention to detail among the relationships between characters and the characters themselves that solidify the filmís ultimate drive. By the time the murder does come around, itís surprising how thoroughly involving the film has become without at all using false suspicions or plot twists. The sequence is effectively tense, because we know these people. The murder really has no bearing on the course of the filmís plot. Itís a device for secrets to be revealed, and even these secrets are not divulged so that justice can be served. They are revealed to further our understanding of the characters. Mysteries like these are often drenched in melodrama, but in taking its time, the film becomes pure drama. It also contains brilliant moments of witty humor, mostly common among comedies of manners. Additionally, the entire story can be taken as an allegory of social upheaval. The characters also exist as types, giving us a generic view of the class system in which they participate. The murder would then be symbolic of the death of said system, and the resulting events simply emphasize the steady downfall of a society on its last legs.

To ensure success, Altman has gathered a large and prominent cast of mostly British actors. If there was ever proof that the Academy needs to instate an award for best ensemble cast, this is it. Each character is vital, and each of the actors fills the demands of the film splendidly. Itís a pleasure to see veterans like Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, and Derek Jacobi perform together. Smith is particularly memorable as the hypocritically snobbish Constanceóher droll delivery slicing through each scene she appears in. The rest of the recognizable faces settle in nicely among the crowd. This is an ensemble in the true sense of the wordóno character or actor makes more of an impression than they need to. They all work in perfect harmony, and Altman holds the entire venture together as we would expect from the man who gave us ensemble pieces like MASH, Nashville, and Short Cuts.

Gosford Park, like most great films, defies convention and categorization. It works as a murder mystery, a comedy of manners, a human drama, and a social commentary simply by providing a rich tapestry of characters and relationships, status and class. This is a film that lets all of its elements grow from its premise without confining or forcing the results. Itís the kind of pure filmmaking and storytelling so rarely seen nowadays.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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