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.