Gosford Park Review
It makes perfect sense for Robert Altman, maestro of the multi-plot strands and interweaving characters in his films, to make a murder-mystery homage to the likes of Agatha Christie. Gosford Park was an idea Altman had with American actor Bob Balaban (who also co-produced and starred in it). Altman assembled a fantastic all-star cast of mostly Britain's finest, along with Ryan Phillippe, in a film that has earned many Oscar nominations and caused the critics to rave.
Although Gosford Park is a murder-mystery set in 1932, the film could also be categorised as a black-comedy, or a social satire of the ridiculous upstairs-downstairs class system that played an axiomatic part in early twentieth century England. Expertly written by Julian Fellowes (who is sure to beat Memento and The Royal Tenenbaums to Best Original Screenplay - You read it here first!), the script is a delight to follow as it operates on many layers. The obvious layer is the murder-mystery, in which the film begins with Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) inviting a large list of guests for a shooting party. Each guest has their own maids and servants, and eventually one of the guests is murdered; cue Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and his assistant Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) to solve the case. However, not only is the murder incredibly easy to solve, it is arguably not Altman's main concern. A much more interesting notion that Gosford Park illustrates, is the concept that the servants and the guests change in their position of dominance. For example, the guests treat the servants with low regard, and yet they are totally redundant without them, be it for food, washed clothes, casual sex or gossip that will put them in good stead with their colleagues. The servants however, are perfectly happy to exist in their own hierarchical order, as if they jokingly pretend to the guests that they worship them merely as a form of pulling the wool over their eyes.
Altman has great fun sending up the guests, especially with Dame Maggie Smith as Constance, Countess of Trentham, who devotes every line of dialogue to snobbish put-downs. Dame Maggie is just one of an outstanding cast of names that include at least twenty well-known stars. Out of these stars, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Emily Watson and Kristen Scott Thomas all stand out above the rest. Although each of the characters in the film could be described here, part of the film's charm is to play the information feeder as the audience opens their hungry mouths, in other words, Gosford Park is better the less you know about it.
Altman directs casually and yet dramatically; he always guides the viewer with regards to which character they should be concentrating on in each particular sequence, and despite the film's two hours plus length Gosford Park feels slick and devoid of padding. The production elements of the film work well to give it a distinct nineteen thirties feel, and the score by Patrick Doyle is wonderfully characteristic of the tone of the film.
The main problem with Gosford Park however, is that any fan of Altman will note the director's lack of anything new to say on the subject of Christie-esque murder-mysteries. The film is a perfect homage, and a damn good night's entertainment fresh from the blockbuster rubbish, and yet Altman refuses to take the genre into the twenty-first century, choosing instead to keep it firmly in the past. Rather than revitalise a genre, Altman's film merely seeks to become part of it.