An iconoclast whose career of forty-plus years has encompassed
"Golden Age" television, seminal films like M*A*S*H*, THE PLAYER
and his unquestionable masterpiece NASHVILLE, Robert Altman is one
of the few filmmakers who is comfortable working in almost every genre.
It comes as no surprise then that when actor-producer-director Bob Balaban
approached him with the idea of inverting the traditional period murder
mystery, Altman would respond favorably. Together the pair outlined the
project which was to be set over a weekend in an English country house
in the 1930s. (In his own words, THE RULES OF THE GAME meets
TEN LITTLE INDIANS.) But not content to just present a straightforward
whodunit, Altman and Balaban concocted a twist: they would tell the tale
from the point of view of the servants, adding a layer of social commentary.
Drafting actor-writer Julian Fellowes to pen the script and hiring a dream
cast of British actors, Altman has directed one of the best films of 2001
and one of the best of his career: GOSFORD PARK.
Just as some of the finest movies about the United States have been
made by foreign-born directors, GOSFORD PARK benefited from Altman's
unique perspective. One of the major themes that has run through his
work is the interaction of people of differing backgrounds who are forced
together by circumstances, whether it be medics and soldiers (M*A*S*H*),
disparate families (A WEDDING, SHORT CUTS) or the various strata of
Hollywood (THE PLAYER). With GOSFORD PARK, it is a combination of
rich and poor, English and American, masters and servants and within
each social circle, there is a clear and well-defined pecking order.
Deliberately choosing to set the film in 1932 so as to avoid the drums
of war, the filmmakers have created a vehicle that examines the forces
of societal change occurring in small but quite perceptible ways.
As might be expected of a maverick and an outsider, Altman clearly
identifies more with the serving class. The brilliant conceit of the film is
that no event occurs upstairs without a servant in proximity. Serving as
the eyes and ears for the audience is young Mary Mceachern (Kelly
Macdonald), newly hired by the imperious Countess of Trentham (Maggie
Smith, who dispenses with her lines like well-aimed poisoned darts).
Arriving at the titular manse, Mary is swept up in the bustle and confusion
of the operation of such an estate and the audience is along for the ride.
Altman has never much cared too much for dense plotting, and the
loose structure might not have worked had the film been cast with lesser
actors, but each of the over 30 speaking parts have been assigned to
performers of merit, whether they be veterans or relative newcomers. Part
of the enjoyment of the film is in watching the interaction of these excellent
In such a large cast, there will, of course, be those who stand out
more than others. Among the aristocrats, Michael Gambon is perfect as
the vile host and eventual victim Sir William McCordle, a lecherous man
upon whom most of the guests depend for money while Kristin Scott
Thomas is delightful as his imperious and witchy wife. James Wilby has
some moments as a ne'er-do-well, blackmailing McCordle's daughter
while Claudie Blakeley is excellent as his put-upon wife. Jeremy Northam
cuts a dashing figure as Ivor Novello (the real-life matinee idol) and gets
to display a pleasing singing voice as he provides post-prandial
entertainment. Bob Balaban is a hoot as the nebbishy American film
producer who disdains eating meat but wraps himself in a fur coat.
The below-stairs crew is the more star-studded, even if some don't
get to shine as brightly as others. Alan Bates does a nice job as the
reliable head manservant. Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins are superb as
the housekeeper and the cook, respectively, each battling over turf and
control of staff members. Emily Watson is properly feisty as the head
housemaid whose relationship with Sir William is an open secret. Clive
Owen is terrific as a visiting valet and Ryan Phillippe does some of his
best work as the Scottish manservant to Balaban's producer.
Special mention has to be made of the behind-the-scenes
magicians who helped to create the visual style of the film. The production
design of Stephen Altman (the director's son) is a particular highlight,
whether it was recreating the baronial splendor of the upstairs rooms or
the labyrinthine corridors of the servant's quarters. His decor is nicely
offset by the terrific costumes by Jenny Beavan, the pristine photography
of Andrew Dunn, and the appropriate editing of Tim Squyres. Patrick
Doyle's subtle but effective dramatic underscore also adds greatly to the
While some may quibble over the fact that the murder and the
subsequent revelations of who actually perpetrated it and why might seem
anti-climactic, that is precisely the point. This isn't a Hercule Poirot-
Miss Marple feature. Instead, it is a comic look at a time when shifts in
society began, when traditions began to erode and people were freer
to cross the once rigid class barriers, as in Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu
(1939) and Alan Bridges' THE SHOOTING PARTY (1984). Like those and
other inimitable efforts, GOSFORD PARK is a rich and layered feature that
requires multiple viewings. On a second or third visit, audience members
can focus on different characters and appreciate the screenplay's wit and
psychological insights as well as the terrific performances. This is a swell
party and one I hope to revisit again and again and again.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and
Running time: 137 mins.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.