Gosford Park Review
Robert Altman was one of the most easily defined auteurs of American cinema due to his ability to bend disparate genres to his distinctive sensibilities. From the frontlines of Vietnam to the boardrooms of Hollywood executives, he crafted intricately detailed character studies, often with dense numbers of characters whose backstories often got buried beneath his trademark overlapping dialogue. Gosford Park is equally an intricate study of a vast ensemble, but arguably the furthest he strayed from his comfort zone since his bizarre take on Popeye - replacing the Americana of his previous films with an all-encompassing Britishness that couldn't feel further removed from his earlier works if it tried.
Working from a screenplay by Julian Fellowes (who would later create Downton Abbey), Gosford Park is a delightful reimagining of the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery formula; it might even be one of Altman's finest genre experiments. Despite being an outsider looking in, he managed to make an elegantly satirical examination of British class relations, probing the carefree nature of the affluent upper classes and their sheer indifference to anybody lower down the economic food chain.
Set in November 1932, the film follows a sizeable group of wealthy individuals who descend on the Gosford Park estate, residence of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristen Scott Thomas), for a shooting weekend. Tensions in this close knit circle are raised by the unexpected appearance of an American film producer (Bob Balaban) and his valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe) who displays untrustworthy behaviour that leaves other guests feeling uncomfortable.
Downstairs in the servants' quarters, housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) finds herself getting suspicious at the arrival of a suave new valet (Clive Owen) after he casually mentions being raised in an orphanage. This proves endearing to maid Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), even if his detached demeanour makes it hard for her to find out anymore about this mysterious figure. However, the weekend’s plans are halted on the second evening, when Sir William is discovered murdered upstairs - and when bumbling Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) is called to investigate, the whodunnit doesn’t become any clearer for the mismatched guests in attendance.
The premise is ingeniously simple, and even while tracking a number of different character studies simultaneously, it never loses focus in the same way other Altman ensemble pieces have done in the past. Of course, the plot is merely a McGuffin to get all these disparate characters in a room together, and observe the tensions relating to class and nationality, as well as the undercurrent of sexual tension that only acts to make certain guests appear more culpable for the crime than others. The film’s most rewarding comic moments come with the clashes between the American guest and those who look down upon his profession; in one delightfully bitchy scene, Lady Constance (a fantastically catty Maggie Smith) informs the producer of the dwindling audience responses to his latest film, all but cackling at a perceived irrelevance for films she deems to be from a lesser culture. Elsewhere, the servants are baffled at the sheer concept of his vegetarianism, an alien concept to the British.
But it’s in examining the undercurrent of class relations where the film truly shines brightest. After the murder takes place, the servants downstairs are shaken to their core, while the guests upstairs seem to go out of their way to continue as normal, undermining the investigation by barely letting the sheer weight of the situation fully register. It’s not exactly groundbreaking to make a film about rich people that concludes their self-involved personalities make them devoid of a more recognisably human empathy, but when contrasted with the earnest responses downstairs (from individuals who were made to know their societal inferiority to the guests) it’s a satirical trope that feels fresh again.
Altman and Fellowes are far more interested in these characters than the murder itself - and when they are played by a murderer’s row of Britain’s finest character actors, then this isn’t a problem whatsoever. There isn’t a single weak link in the ensemble, but the earlier career turns of Clive Owen and Kelly Macdonald are my personal standouts; Owen manages to emanate an innate sense of cool despite his untrustworthy demeanour, that makes it clear why he was hyped up as Pierce Brosnan’s Bond successor at the time. Macdonald, meanwhile, is the closest thing the film has to an audience surrogate, but in Altman’s hands, this is a far more interesting archetype than it sounds, allowing her to express a hidden vulnerability that is key to her finest performances.
BONUS FEATURES: Arrow’s rereleases always come with a wealth of bonus features, and this - courtesy of its Academy label - is no exception. Carried over from previous releases, there are commentary tracks from Altman and Fellowes, with a new commentary provided by critics Geoff Andrew and David Thompson (author of Altman on Altman). Additionally, as well as original behind the scenes extras from the original Blu-ray, there are specially recorded cast and crew interviews to celebrate the rerelease.