Gosford Park



UK/US 2001
director : Robert Altman
script : Julian Fellowes (based on idea by Altman & Bob Balaban)
producers include : Altman, Balaban
cinematography : Andrew Dunn
editing : Tim Squyres
music : Patrick Doyle
lead actors : Kelly Macdonald, Clive Owen, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Ryan Philippe, Maggie Smith
with : Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E Grant, Tom Hollander, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Geraldine Somerville, Sophie Thompson, James Wilby, etc.
134-137 minutes

England, 1932: guests arrive for a weekend’s shooting and partying at Gosford Park, the stately home owned by mega-rich industrialist Sir William McCordle (Gambon) and his aristocratic wife Lady Sylvia (Scott Thomas). The guests bring their own servants, who mingle ‘downstairs’ with the resident staff while the well-heeled denizens of ‘upstairs’ flirt, bitch and bicker. Old jealousies, rivalries and resentments come to the fore – culminating in cold-blooded murder.

Altman’s first British film is another of his trademark woozy mega-ensembles – hit and miss affairs that can be magical (Nashville, Short Cuts), messy (A Wedding, Pret-a-Porter) or anything in between. His technique is to assemble a top-notch cast and watch what happens when they’re all brought together: improvisation is strongly encouraged, and the use of multiple cameras and microphones ensures a spontaneity completely at odds with the usual just-so formality of country-house period dramas. But it’s entirely appropriate, since Fellowes’ script so strongly emphasises how quickly the ‘modern’ world is making the stiff, old-fashioned rituals of the house (below stairs, servants are only referred to by the names of their employers) seem absurdly outdated.

One of the guests is even a Hollywood producer, Weissman, (Balaban) who spends most of his time on the phone to California arranging his next project, ‘Charlie Chan In London.’ He’s accompanied by his ‘Scottish’ valet Denton (Philippe) – eventually unmasked as a Hollywood actor researching his next role. But the gay relationship between Weissman and Denton remains behind closed doors – nor, despite that pointed 1932 setting, does Weissman’s Jewishness ever become an issue, other than causing confusion among the cooks when they’re told there’s a ‘vegetarian’ in the house.

Because Gosford doesn’t really work as a socio-economic snapshot in the tradition of La Regle du Jeu, Renoir’s country-house-weekend chronicle of the French aristocracy as an ‘endangered species’ on the eve of war. That film was made and set in the (then) present, intended both as lament and urgent warning. Gosford instead shows us a long-dead vision of British society, one with only limited relevance to today’s events – rather than marking the end of the ‘country house’ culture, all that’s being signified is the end (let’s hope) of the country-house movie.

Nor is it especially successful as a spoof or deconstruction of the Agatha Christie genre: the ‘clues’ are dropped straight in our laps, so that even the most amateurish sleuth should soon be able to puzzle out the what, the how, the who and the why – though it all remains beyond the grasp of the dim-bulb copper (Fry) whose sole contribution is to obliterate the evidence. And, let’s not forget, Charlie Chan is in London, not here. But Altman’s erratic alchemy somehow manages to forge an organic, satisfying whole out of these two botched halves: the socio-economic-analysis and the cod murder-mystery.

He’s described Gosford as not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘who-cares-who-dunnit’, and this is the closest Renoir parallel: what should, in theory, be central to the plot becomes rapidly peripheral. Regle may open with footage of a heroic airman landing after a daredevil trans-Atlantic crossing, but the charismatic pilot is soon forgotten as the events spiral out of control. In Gosford it’s real-life matinee idol Ivor Novello (Northam) who’s unexpectedly shuffled back in the pack – one minute Lady Sylvia is begging him to tinkle out his latest show-stopping tunes, the next she’s rolling her eyes with the rest of the guests as Novello’s repertoire rapidly exhausts its welcome (in a nice contrast, the servants hover in the corridors and behind the doors, straining to hear every last note).

Scott Thomas is ideal casting as the acidic Sylvia, bored languidly shitless by her boorish husband and scarcely able to contain her delight when he’s removed from the picture. But if there’s a lead in this massive cast, it unexpectedly turns out to be Macdonald’s Mary, timid ‘lady in waiting’ for Sylvia’s dowager aunt, the crusty Countess Trentham (Smith). As the least experienced of the servants, she’s the audience’s surrogate, and the other characters are always explaining to her (and us) who’s who and what’s what. Not that it’s always easy to keep track of everything – the downside of Altman’s chaotic approach is that many aspects remain arbitrary (Mary is only Scottish because of Denton’s accent, and vice versa) and several stories remain distractingly undeveloped, giving Bates, Jacobi and Grant frustratingly little to do.

Smith, of course, maximises every second of screen time, turning the most apparently throwaway line into a brilliant apercu: “Bought marmalade!” she sniffs disapprovingly as she inspects her breakfast tray, and if the Countess ever lowered herself to watch ‘moving pictures’, she’d probably feel the same about Gosford Park: light on nourishment but a delicious blend of sweet and sharp flavours – an acceptable substitute for the real thing, given the nature of the times. These days, after all, you just can’t get the staff.

31st January, 2002
(seen Jan-23-02, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

to read the short version of this review, click here

This film appeared in the Fipresci Selection 2001-2002 : click here for full list

by Neil Young
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