Movie Review – Gosford Park (2001)

by RICHARD WINTERS

Gosford Park is directed by the late Robert Altman and features a very wide and eclectic cast that includes: Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Bob Balaban (who helped create the story), Kristen Scott-Thomas, Clive Owen, and Michael Gambon among others.  The plot takes place in the 1930s at a large English estate where friends and relatives come together for a weekend shooting party.  As the story progresses we get little glimpses of all the varied personalities and lives of both the guests and the servants.  Things begin to slowly unravel when the wealthy owner of the estate, Sir William McCrodle, turns up dead in his study with a knife in his chest.

The film contains many ‘Altmanisms’ including having running conversations going on between various characters all at the same time.  Altman had his cast members wear small microphones in their clothing instead of using the traditional boom microphone just for this purpose.  Although this running conversation style was considered very innovative and unique when he first started it in the ‘70s with the film M*A*S*H it now seems a little bit predictable and overused, almost like Altman’s films were becoming a cliche.

However, with that said, I felt at least that in this film it wasn’t as excessive as in some of his others.  The camera mainly stays focused on one conversation at a time for the most part and the direction nicely reflects the staid sensibilities of that era. The only unnecessary element that should have been left out was the use of the ‘F’ word, which ends up getting said about four times in the film.  Apparently Altman made sure to insert the word simply so he could get an R rating and thus avoid teenagers coming to see it who he felt would not like it or even ‘get it.’  While I agree most teenagers probably would not like it, I think the setting itself would be enough to scare them off without the rating being necessary.  The use of the ‘F’ word seems very jarring and breaks the viewer from the setting that Altman otherwise worked successfully to authenticate. I know the word has been around since at least the 14th century, but it would not be blurted out in polite society like it is here and not in front of women.

The only other real issue that I have with the film is the fact that the murder does not take place until one hour and twenty minutes into the movie. Now I know this wasn’t meant to be a typical murder mystery and Altman has always had a reputation for bucking convention, but here I don’t feel it works.  It seemed like the momentum really didn’t get going until after the murder was committed.  The characters also became more fascinating after the murder occurs as it was interesting seeing all the different ways that they responded to the crime.  In my opinion it would have worked better at having the murder happen near the top of the film.  The concept could have been the same, but at least there would have been more of an anchor.  The murder also allows for the introduction of the Stephen Fry character as a bumbling Columbo-like inspector who is quite amusing.

As it is a lot the stuff that occurs in the first hour comes off as unnecessary. The film could have been cut by a good forty-five minutes and the viewer really wouldn’t have missed anything.  The only scene in the first hour that I really liked was the hunting sequence which was a direct reference to the same sequence used in Jean Renoir’s classic film The Rules of the Game, although the sequence as used here wasn’t nearly as graphic, prolonged, or disturbing as the one in that film. Still it was a nice touch.

The one element that really made this film enjoyable was the performances. It was interesting and even enthralling see how old pros like Alan Bates and Helen Mirren approached their respective roles as servants.  They have both played a lot of varied roles in their storied careers, but never that of servants, which required underplaying and subtlety.  Yet they both do amazingly well.  Bates especially left a lasting impression with me even though his scenes are limited.  Maggie Smith is also stellar even though her scenes are limited as well.  She still shows an amazing amount of energy and creativity and almost ends up being the scene stealer of the whole film.

The only performance that doesn’t work is that of Kristen Scott-Thomas.  Apparently she did not get along well with either Altman or the rest of the cast and the results show.  Her performance is not as refined as the others and seems to display too much over-the-top emotion.  The scene where she aggressively flirts with a much younger man whom she has just met, while asking for a warm glass of milk, seems hard to believe and out of place for that time period.

Overall I found the film to be enjoyable and especially liked the unique and surprisingly touching wrap up.  I would highly recommend it to viewers who enjoy period pieces or fans of Altman’s works.

5 responses to “Movie Review – Gosford Park (2001)

  1. I liked this when I saw it in the theater but was a bit surprised to find that I enjoyed it more in a second and third viewing. Without the distraction of a mystery, slight though it was, to solve I savored the individual performances and enjoyed the flow of character interaction and the intersecting story lines.

    It’s a big cast and I needed the hour and twenty minutes to establish all those characters and relationships. Without that baseline for comparison I don’t think I would have found the post-murder reactions as interesting. Some of the stories/characters were more interesting than others but if he’d left some of them out or focused on one big plot point it might have been a good movie but it wouldn’t have been an Altman movie.

    It seemed a delightful twist to the conventional mystery story that, while secrets are revealed and truths do out, the official mystery – the murder – is only solved unofficially below stairs and is unlikely to be solved at all above stairs.

  2. This is a truly great film by a great director. I love the fact that it’s basically a direct descendant of “La règle du jeu”, which is another classic that’s in my top 3 movies ever made, and that it’s more of an upstairs/downstairs, “who done it” type film.
    Definitely a personal favourite and I really like this review.

  3. I was hoping to find a textual reading of this great film and contextual reference to other Altman and/or related genre films. Instead I find a typical scorecard evaluation and how it might have been better. This review is lazy thinking and presumptuous. I’m still hoping to find an insightful analysis of the film.
    I share the enthusiasm of the two replies for the film. One is indeed rewarded by repeat viewings. Individual performances and lines of dialog reveal more depth and complexity on subsequent viewings. I’m trying to figure how this film manages to be so different from the recent Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. Gosford Park is detached, ironic and far less emotional but somehow more involving since it directs us to think about filmmaking and our own relationship to class systems.
    Of course I can understand not liking this film but it is carefully constructed. Agatha kills someone in the first three chapters but this isn’t Agatha. The subject here isn’t whodunnit. It is why do all these people do what they do. This narrative framework reveals and illuminates their struggle and may cause some reflection on one’s own.

    • I believe that the main reason why the film’s a contemporary classic is because it’s an excellent, be it loose remake of one of the greatest films of all time, “La Regle du Jeu” (The Rules of the Game, 1939). Altman must have loved the Jean Renoir classic and it must have inspired him to want to direct this film.

  4. I’ve now watched it another time and I marvel at how densely detailed it is. This is Altman’s homage to British acting among other purposes. We now know this screenplay is by the same screenwriter as The King’s Speech. But this film can enjoy many more viewings than that winner. The performances and their characters pay back with interest. Altman goes from this to The Company where he consciously examines how a group of performers make a performance. Both works RESONATE with the art of cinema and the dynamic of a collective enterprise.
    For those looking to pursue takes on the aristocracy might I suggest The Shooting Party featuring James Mason’s last performance along side John Gielguld, James fox and the great actor who portrayed Hudson in Upstairs,Downstairs.

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