Gosford Park
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen,Ryan Phillippe, Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren

Robert Altman

Writing credits: Julian Fellowes
Distributor: USA Films
Rated: R for some language and brief sexuality
  (USA 2001)

Director Robert Altman used to be regarded as one of the most important American directors of the latter half of the 20th century. From his cynical, classic anti-war film M*A*S*H to the bizarre Bud Cort vehicle BREWSTER McCLOUD, to his only marginally western Western McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, and in his later ensemble works, Altman's signature used to mean a film to anticipate eagerly. Somewhere in the aftermath of the brilliant Hollywood satire THE PLAYER (the influence of which can be seen in the opening sequence of this season's THE MAJESTIC), Altman lost his focus, most clearly evident in the ghastly PRET ÀPORTER IN 1994, the even worse THE GINGERBREAD MAN in 1998, and the misogynistic DR. T AND THE WOMEN last year. This year, I'm happy to report, Altman returns to peak form with the genial Agatha-Christie-Meets-Jean-Marsh-and-Eileen-Atkins murder mystery, GOSFORD PARK.

Co-imagined in conjunction with co-producer and featured player Bob Balaban, GOSFORD PARK is an airy bit of trifle for a murder mystery, and indeed, the murder is perhaps the least interesting aspect of the production, which combines expert writing by British television actor and first-time feature film writer Julian Fellowes (of BBC's MONARCH OF THE GLEN) with sparkling performances by Every British Actor Not Currently Appearing In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE or LORD OF THE RINGS (And Some Who Do).

The setting is one of those old English estate houses, circa 1932. An assortment of variously squabbling relatives and friends are gathered for a shooting party, hosted by Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his younger trophy wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott-Thomas). In attendance are the McCordle's daughter Isabelle (Camilla Rutherford); Sylvia's sister Lady Louisa Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville) and her somewhat deaf husband, Raymond (Charles Dance); another sister, Lady Lavinia Meredith (Natasha Wightman) and her husband, Lieutenant Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander); and the ghastly Nesbitts, Hon. Freddie (James Whilby) and his obviously working class-origined wife (Claudie Blakley). The family's putative matriarch, Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) is also in attendance, less for the shooting than for the opportunity to gossip about the other attendees. Rounding out the "upstairs" crowd are film actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and producer Morris Weissman (Balaban).

The logistics of managing such a gathering are left to the servants, led by the stern and ramrod-straight Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren, in a Mrs. Danvers-like turn) and butler Jennings (a portly and unrecognizable Alan Bates). Rounding out the McCordle's household are head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins, co-writer of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS, one of the film's in-jokes); valet Probert (Derek Jacobi); First Footman George (Richard E. Grant); Lady Sylvia's maid Lewis (Meg Wynn Owen, another in-joke, as she portrayed James Bellamy's wife in UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS); and head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson). In one of those inexplicable British class-structure traditions, the guests' servants (Clive Owen, as Lord Stockbridge's valet; Kelly MacDonald as Maggie Smith's maid; and Ryan Phillippe as an actor masquerading as Morris Weissman's valet, are assigned their employers' names for the duration; which is probably the last time you'll ever see a Ryan Phillippe character with a name like "Weissman".

If you can't keep track of all of them, worry not, for the point is not who's whom, but merely to listen to sparkling dialogue spoken by perhaps the most impressive gathering of British actors ever assembled in one place. The fun of GOSFORD PARK, as with its philosophical predecessor UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS, is in observing the many hypocrisies played out in the elaborate class rituals of British culture, against a backdrop of the looming unrest in Europe that would ultimately sound the death knell of this sort of class rigidity. At this gathering, no one is precisely what he or she seems.

Sir William may be rich, but his wealth was derived from the efforts of a variety of exploited (in a number of ways) female sweatshop workers. For all her airs, Lady Constance is dependent for her support on an allowance from Sir William, who wields it over her constantly like a weapon. Lady Sylvia is married to Sir William solely by virtue of winning a cut of cards with her obviously embittered sister Louisa. The desperate Anthony Meredith is attempting to go into business with Sir William, who clearly wants no part of him. And the "Honorable" Freddie Nesbitt, having cast away his now-penniless wife, is relentlessly pursuing Sir William's daughter, Isabelle.

It's clear on which side of the stairs Altman's sympathies lie. Morris Weissman, in attendance to gather material for his next Charlie Chan movie observes the proceedings by asking his friend Novello, "How do you put up with these people?" Without missing a note in his musical serenade, Novello smiles winsomely and replies, "You forget I earn my living by impersonating them." When one character (oh, all right, it's Sir William) is murdered, the investigation, led by one Inspector Thompson (a hilariously inept Stephen Fry) is completely perfunctory, as if he agreed with Mrs. Croft's observation, "Well, he wasn't exactly Father Christmas."

Compared to this bunch, the servants are downright saintly by comparsion, for all that one of them seems to always end up with her chubby legs wrapped around one guest or another, another of them is clearly out to seduce every woman in the house, and yet another has a vague air of sinister, yet strangely attractive, malevolence.

We've seen the lifestyles of the rich and shameless in an earlier era portrayed before, usually as an obsessive compulsive attention to ephemera, as in the elaborate table settings of Martin Scorsese's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE or the impeccably accurate costuming of TITANIC. However, here the opulence is photographed in an almost sickly greenish tone, as if to underscore a wasting sickness lurking beneath; punctuated by an absurdly large number of shots of bottles labeled "poison" that are missing only the cartoon arrow and sign reading "Poison". How many class-war comedy/dramas can boast the influence of Tex Avery?

GOSFORD PARK plays more like a stage production of an Oscar Wilde drawing room comedy than a murder mystery; relying on performance and dialogue rather than plot for its strengths. It's a credit to the screenwriter, the director, and especially the actors, that so many characters are developed so well. Most of the characterizations are handled impeccably with actor tongues planted firmly in cheek, led by the divine Maggie Smith, whose utterly withering put-downs of just about everyone ought to garner her an Academy Award nomination. When Weissman demurs at revealing the plot of his next mystery movie, lest he spoil the surprise, she tells him, utterly deadpan, "Oh, but none of us will see it." Jeremy Northam, who is making a career out of playing strange hybrids of British and Italian men, is not only fine as Novello, but is also a credible pianist and singer, although his sequence goes on a bit too long. Clive Owen, as the sinister valet to Lord Stockbridge, firmly cements his stature as Sex Symbol In the Making. Kelly MacDonald as Countess Trentham's maid, is lovely and self-effacing, with a beautiful speaking voice. Bob Balaban, who I saw as Linus many years ago in the original off-broadway production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown", has become one of the foremost portrayers of low-key, vaguely slimy characters in cinema today.

Even actors of whom I'm not usually fond shine in GOSFORD PARK. Kristin Scott-Thomas' customary brittle aristocrat is here lightened with delicious comic timing. Emily Watson as the head housemaid finally gives a performance in which her character is neither suffering nor a victim. Yet the biggest surprise, and the oddest phenomenon, is Ryan Phillippe, who for once seems to be having a good time, actually affecting a quite credible Scottish brogue. As long as he's portraying an actor playing a role, he's quite effective. As soon as the extra layer of role-playing is removed, however, he goes back to his usual Sullen Boy schtick.

If I have one complaint about GOSFORD PARK, it's the unfortunate foray into melodrama into which the film sinks in its last half-hour; one that seems incongruous with the rest of the film. Still, for the first hour and a half of its running time, GOSFORD PARK is about as much fun as someone who loves great dialogue uttered by fine actors can have in a movie theatre.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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