Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Robert Altman's Gosford Park ( 2001) should be required viewing for all film directors prior to working on their movies. It could be used in the same way that professional boxers go to Boxing Camp to get into shape before a fight. Altman demonstrates what a perfectly directed film looks like. Every scene in the film seems to have been staged to a level of near perfection. Not only do we have Altman's signature scenes full of characters doing bits of business with our focus being directed via levels of dialogue sound to particular spots on the screen, but also we have dozens of scenes that are mini-movies in themselves.
Characters enter, say a line, do a bit of business, the perspective shifts seamlessly to reveal another bit of information and that character does their business and then turns and observes other characters talking and revealing more information. All of this is done through dialogue that is natural, often over-lapping and never over-written (although in this film several lines have a wonderful polished literalness to them). Every actor and nearly all the performances seem to be emanating from actors who have been working with this material and each other for several years.
In reality the cast only had a few weeks’ worth of rehearsal and so the seamless manner in which the performances gel is due to the actors and the man in charge --Robert Altman. Altman is in charge of nearly every film that bears his name. His focus is usually on a different way to tell the story and it's always more concerned with character than with plot. Despite what may you have read or heard he's not very interested in anarchy or in being subversive, he just wants to make films that would interest him and often those are also films that would interest us. He is willing to try things, experiment and fail rather than to play it too safe or to not make an attempt to do something a little different than he perceives it's been done before.
Two cameras were used during most of the production. Camera’s that gently roved through the crowded scenes as the actors had conversations and did their bits of business. Camera’s that used tighter frames on the Upstairs crowd and captured various shots of mirrors, stairs to subtly emphasize the separation of classes. The fact that it all looks seamless is a tribute to an incredible teamwork between, the actors, Altman, the cinematographer Andrew Dunn, and crew members in charge of lighting sound etc. and the post-production work of editors and sound engineers.
This why I believe this should be required viewing for film directors. If you create the right team and get everyone working on the same page—look at the results that are possible.
Gosford Park takes place in November 1932 and is set on the luxurious English country estate belonging to Sir William McCordle (Michael Gamon). McCordle is a man who has made his money through ownership of boot factories and sweatshops. He has invited over a dozen aristocrats and their servants to his estate for a weekend Quail/Pheasant shooting party. Several of the guests owe their livelihoods to Sir William. Others have their own reasons or agendas for attending the gathering. I won't spoil the charms and discoveries of the film by revealing too much. It is best if you let the film reveal the characters, AND their relations to one another. Various motives will be revealed, but not always in the ways you expect. Pay close attention and be richly rewarded. I was not absolutely sure who was going to be murdered when I saw the film and since the murder doesn't occur until the film is nearly two-thirds over, it added an extra layer of enjoyment to the film. Enjoyment? Yes….after all, if a piano fell on the head of half of these characters it would be far from a tragic occurrence.
The tone of the film might have been described by a writer pitching a studio executive in Altman's The Player as a cross between Remains of the Day; Murder on the Orient Express, PBS's Upstairs Downstairs and Noel Coward's Private Lives (or lesser-known Hay Fever). Since you know it's a murder mystery, you're probably paying attention right from the start for various clues. You won't be disappointed for there's a lingering shot past some bottles of Poison foreshadowing what will undoubtedly occur. Remember, however this is an Altman film and the only thing you can count on is that when something familiar or clichéd is introduced it is to be twisted and altered in an unfamiliar way. This is a particularly welcome development to be added to a genre as familiar as a 'cozy' English murder mystery. Indeed it is the details and colorful characters that Altman is most interested in…and so are we.
Altman has assembled a rich cast of what most would consider English (and Australian/Irish/ actors). Bob Balaban and Ryan Phillipe are the exceptions and they play visitors from America. Dame Judith Dench snagged an Oscar for a brief but mesmerizing appearance in Shakespeare in Love a few years ago…. If there was anything such as Oscar consistency/equality/fairness Maggie Smith who has a much more substantial and multi-faceted part in Gosford Park should have picked up several Oscars for what she does here. (Alas the brilliant ensemble cast won NO Oscars). Yet that's criminally obvious because almost every member of this perfect cast shines. Smith gets the luck of the draw in playing one of the most verbal and most outwardly colorful of the characters. She does everything we expect and hope for her to do and then even a little more. It's a part that seems to have been created to make use of every single tic, inflection and look she is capable of offering. She seems to have an unfair advantage over everyone else because everything she does she is exactly what we want. She's shameless in the way she commands every scene, but she's absolutely perfect in what she does.
Alan Bates on the other hand is also giving us a wonderful performance with his Head butler Jennings but his character is one that's more comfortable blending into the woodwork as a devoted servant. Helen Mirren at one point beautifully states: "I'm the perfect servant, I have no life." Ah but everyone of course has a life. Some are quiet about them, some are secretive, and some are just learning or emulating the dance. I'm not going to detail any further the four or five in the cast who I believe stand-out because this is an ensemble piece that I encourage you to discover. Nearly everyone gets to shine for a moment or two and no one hogs the scenery at the expense of someone else. Even though it might appear that is exactly what Stephen Frye is doing, he really isn't and his reigns are not loose enough to spoil the film --though Altman aficionados will perhaps defensively over-prepare for the possible derailment of the film (which never occurs) by the appearance of an outrageous over-the top character in a scene or two. (It really never happens…here).
The film is filled with a succession of mini-scenes and moments within larger scenes. There are 30 significant speaking roles in the film and about 20 characters you'll want to pay attention to. No you don't actually have to memorize their names or everything about them and don't worry, the who and why done it explanations aren't difficult at all to comprehend or follow. The more observant will realize the perspective of the film is actually from one particular servant. You'll notice at least one servant is present in every scene of the film and another servant in particular is learning how to be both keenly observant and wisely discreet. At one point (toward the end) the film seems to switch suspects so quickly and completely you might feel a bit dizzy wondering if the obvious will be jettisoned in favor of the under-developed. I won't hint or tell however. It's Altman all the way. Even though the film feels drenched in its period details and manners, Altman still introduces and uses Kristin Scott Thomas in much the manner he would have used Sally Kellerman 30 years ago. Directors, film buffs, writers and critics should all study how a film so rich in mannerisms and period detail can still contain the distinctive vision and signatures of its film maker, Altman.
Altman does not make any choices in this film you can truly say are 'bad' or 'wrong'. There is no strange idiosyncratic character that seems to have escaped from another film or universe that suddenly makes an appearance here. There's no non-actor standing out like a sore thumb amongst the ensemble, no strident use of nudity, and no 'drag' scene to point as a glaring flaw. Perhaps Stephen Fry as the Inspector is a bit too clown-ishly comic, and perhaps Bob Ballaban's American Film producer is an awkward fit (but then that's the point of course, American's always seem awkward and out of place don't they?). And we do get a couple of wonderful exchanges thanks to his inclusion in the film (which you'll have to discover for yourself).
Altman's one undeniable weakness has been his use of music in his films. I believe only Kansas City was made with its music known and set in stone prior to filming. Even if you justify what he is doing with music in particular films from McCabe and Mrs. Miller to Nashville to Short Cuts you cannot excuse him for calling too much attention to some aspect of the music which can upset the balance or tone of his work. I could perhaps defend his use of Leonard Cohen in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but I can't defend how it alters the balance of a scene in an unnecessarily artificial way. I am willing to accept this as a style choice not an intrusion, but it’s a flaw, a conceit that changes the emotional weight of the scene through a calculated, artificial, way that in most cases was not developed and written specifically for the film, but borrowed and made to fit. Anyway, if you are still with me…when Altman did get the music right--as in his Kansas City--he turned the film into a jazz concert and forgot to make us care about much else. Altman 's use of music in Gosford Park is exactly as it should be. I won't spoil one of the films sequences by going into detail about it but let's just say that music is used in one scene to further accentuate additional differences between the upstairs and downstairs characters of the film. In other places in the film you never feel as if music is used in an inappropriate or overly distracting fashion. Perhaps at 76, Altman finally has made his 'perfect' film.
So does the movie have something of timely importance to say? Not really. A film that insists upon saying something important and timely is also a film that quickly turns into something of diminishing value. You might consider it indispensable for a couple of years but then it fades. The heat of it message cools and you're left to discover how well the rest of the film has been made. If it's been made exceptionally well it becomes an important film of its day but never quite a timeless classic.
Gosford Park delivers a dozen and a half interesting characters and allows them to interact for two hours and seventeen minutes. There are critics who quibble about the murder occurring so late in the film it feels almost unnecessary. Altman is interested in character, movement, and sound. Story and plot are secondary and the more conventions (clichés) a genre (Western, Romantic Comedy, Murder Mystery) has, the more he can play with expectations and experiment, re-invent. Some complain that Altman doesn’t seem all that interested in the murder—in Gosford, there’s a definite reason for this—a character’s perspective dictates this illusion (which you might understand better the second or third time you see Gosford). The complaints about this seem to be complaints about how smooth and seamless everything seems to be and how it’s not like other English who-done-its.
Altman does not want to make movies that have already been made before. Here he has constructed a film built upon the intersection of several stories from different characters that meet at the point when the murder occurs. It's the details and getting to the murder that is the most interesting and telling part of the tale and so naturally it is where we spend most of our time. We know a murder will happen. There have been and will always be murders in who-done-its. Rather than begin with a murder and focus on its investigation, we begin before anything happens. It's the characters, the people that matter. The entire film is not built entirely around one of two key sequences but instead resembles a beautifully choreographed dance. Altman has cast the dancers so well in their parts he can concentrate on being the choreographer and conductor accenting the various notes so that a satisfying symphony performance results.
But. . . but . . . but. . . .Were all these characters really necessary to the story? Through subsequent viewings of the film you’ll discover nuances affirming the importance of every character. Those of less importance are part of a household of guests that need to be there.
There have been articles, discussions, DVD extras that discuss the choices various actors made in approaching their roles. Altman lets his actors experiment, try things, improvise and then while respecting their choices he makes suggestions to mold everyone into a unit that he believes will create the most interesting movie he can make. He certainly doesn’t know until he is putting the movie together in post-production if it will really work the way he hopes, and sometimes he discovers something in a performance or scene that he is compelled to include and use—even if it seems a bit out of place. Altman movies often have interesting scenes that are messy and somewhat awkward.
Gosford Park began when Actor/Producer Bob Ballaban approached Altman with a desire to collaborate with him on a project. Altman suggested an English who-done-it and Julian Fellowes was given the assignment to write a screenplay incorporating several of Altman and Ballaban’s ideas. A couple of the characters in the film are based on real people—mostly to add period authenticity.
Gosford Park is a weaved tapestry including many characters, threads, and details. It’s like finding a beautiful handcrafted Persian rug among a display of cheap bathroom throw rugs. It simply doesn't seem possible that Altman would be interested in making this kind of film near the end of his career. After all murder mysteries are usually all about plot and plot points and Altman has never had much interest in such confining and over-worn things as those—His satiric war film was MASH, His film noir is The Long Goodbye, his musicals Nashville and Kansas City, his political take is HBO’s Tanner '88, his romantic comedy is Dr. T and the Women, his western is McCabe and Mrs. Miller, his scathing satire on the film industry was The Player, his multi-layered look at various Southern California based personalities was also a literary adaptation of Raymond Carver short-stories (Short Cuts), and all bend and twist genre conventions and audience expectations. In Gosford Park he is suddenly subtle and refined. For many, Gosford is Altman’s masterpiece. He followed it with just two more completed projects—Company—about a ballet dance troupe and Prairie Home Companion (about the passing-death of radio variety shows).
The 2002 ‘Collector’s Edition’ DVD is a bit of a disappointment. The image quality of the transfer is flawed. The ‘downstairs’ scenes look nearly as good as they did on the big screen, but the ‘upstairs’ scenes look darker than they should with noticeable compression artifacts. The exterior scenes have noticeable grain. Some of this might be because it’s a fairly low-budget scene, but the noticeable edge enhancement indicates that less than meticulous care was taken with the transfer. Altman and his cinematographer created several visual looks and they weren’t carefully replicated on DVD.
The sound however is superb. Altman’s attention to sound is legendary. Over a 100 voices are part of this show and everything, including the music, the Foley are as perfectly clear and balanced as you could hope for.
There are two full length commentary tracks. Some of the information is redundant and the commentary with director Altman, production designer Stephen Altman (his son) and Producer David Levy is low key and dry. The commentary with screenwriter Julian Fellowes is more entertaining and full of interesting anecdotes as he discusses the film from a more theoretical point of view—letting Altman and company handle the more technical aspects.
There’s an excellent 25 minute Question and Answer session which was taped after a screening of the film at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre at the Academy of Theatrical Arts and Sciences Foundation. Altman compares his directing of the camera and actors to planets trying to find their orbits without crashing into each other. Bob Balaban talks about how the project began as an idea in the vein of Agatha Christies Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) and expanded to one that included the distinct separation of classes in English society. Others answering questions include Julienne Fellowes, Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam and Ryan Phillippe.
The Making of Gosford Park is a fairly routine making of documentary but there are a couple of interesting Robert Altman insights and comments that make it more than simply a promo-piece. (The best making of documentary for Altman fans remains the one on the Short Cuts disc—Luck Trust and Ketchup.)
Some will find "The Authenticity of Gosford Park" a lot of fun. It includes footage from the Making of documentary but we focus on the butler, cook and a few others who helped the cast understand the duties their characters needed to do and how to act properly while doing them.
There are 20 minutes of deleted scenes. Many of them could have integrated into the film, a couple actually add some additional texture, character motivation, a few might have been a bit confusing if part of the finished work. There’s an optional Robert Altman commentary that you can listen to for these deleted scenes as well.
There are also filmographies, the film’s theatrical trailers, and an ad for the film’s soundtrack and trailers for other Universal films on DVD.
Altman’s Gosford Park gives a once in a lifetime cast an opportunity to play an assortment of interesting, quirky, fascinating characters in a period setting. It’s part Upstairs/Downstairs and part Agatha Christie with some Noel Coward added, blended by Robert Altman at his very best in a smooth, balanced cocktail meant to be sipped and savored. If you don’t like dialogue heavy movies, avoid it—everyone else should enjoy this masterful 137 minute period who-done-it.
GOSFORD PARK A great cast bears repeating :
Cast: Eileen Atkins (Mrs. Croft), Bob Balaban (Morris Weissman), Alan Bates (Jennings), Charles Dance (Raymond, Lord Stockbridge), Stephen Fry (Inspector Thompson), Michael Gambon (Sir William McCordle), Richard E. Grant (George), Tom Hollander (Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Meredith), Derek Jacobi (Probert), Kelly Macdonald (Mary Maceachran), Helen Mirren (Mrs. Wilson), Jeremy Northam (Ivor Novello), Clive Owen (Robert Parks), Ryan Phillippe (Henry Denton), Camilla Rutherford (Isobel McCordle), Maggie Smith (Constance, Countess of Trentham), Geraldine Somerville (Louisa, Lady Stockbridge), Kristin Scott Thomas (Lady Sylvia McCordle), Sophie Thompson (Dorothy), Emily Watson (Elsie) and James Wilby (The Hon. Freddie Nesbitt).
Directed by Robert Altman; written by Julian Fellowes, based on an idea by Altman and Bob Balaban; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Patrick Doyle; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Altman, Balaban, and David Levy; released by USA Films. Running time: 137 minutes. Rated R (There's very little reason for the R rating but children would likely be bored by it.).
Note my original Theatrical review has been in greyed out status for a long long time. I’ve updated my original review and added DVD notes to it. May it encourage you to view this superb film again!
©2012, Christopher J. Jarmick
Read all 6 Reviews
Write a Review
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day