|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 25 June 2002|
In terms of the material, it was somewhat unexpected for "Gosford Park" to turn out to be one of director Robert Altman's best movies. If not quite up there with, say, "MASH" or "Nashville," it's still an outstanding movie, and a surprisingly authentic window into another world. It doesn't quite work as an Agatha Christie-like whodunit, the jumping-off point for the original story by Altman and actor Bob Balaban (who also appears in the film), but as one of Altman's multi-character outings, it's excellent. The DVD features a making-of documentary, better than most, plus one on the authenticity of "Gosford Park," and a panel discussion with Altman and others videotaped in front of a Los Angeles audience. Furthermore, there are two commentary tracks, one featuring Altman, his art director son Stephen and producer David Levy, the other featuring screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who won the Oscar for his work here. (The picture itself, Altman as director, Stephen Altman & Anna Pinnock for art direction, Jenny Beavan for costumes and actors Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren were also nominated.)
All in all, it's an excellent package, featuring a near-perfect print with excellent sound that at times takes full advantage of the surround speakers. If you liked the film, you really should pick up the DVD; the commentary tracks are particularly rich in detail, about the making of the film and about the strange world of upper-crust British and their lower-crust servants in 1932 (November, to be precise). In some ways, it resembles Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night" and Renoir's "Rules of the Game," but it's essentially a comedy (so was the Bergman film), and the class division in England was much more rigid and inviolable. Even the fine TV series "Upstairs Downstairs," set later, wasn't as revelatory as "Gosford Park."
More than any other film I've seen on the relationship between titled/moneyed Brits and those who served them, "Gosford Park" makes it abundantly clear that the social rules bound both groups -- bound them together and kept them forever separate. There are no heroes or villains here; the wealthy types are unfailingly polite to the servants (Fellowes remarks that this was very much a rule of this game), the servants gossip about those upstairs -- and are also very hierarchical: seating at dinner among the servants is determined by how high in society their employers were.
The butler (here, Alan Bates) was the lord of the domain downstairs, with the head cook and housekeeper just below him (Eileen Atkins and Helen Mirren); the valets, footmen, hall boys, maids and assistant cooks were arrayed below them. Even among the wealthy, there were rigid class lines. Entertainer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) has been invited to Gosford Park, but several of the titled types, particularly Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) go out of their way to make it clear they have nothing but contempt for entertainers of Novello's ilk (but politely). Novello was a real person; Northam plays him beautifully, and sings several of Novello's songs, very popular in the 1930s. The servants all like Novello, though they're not permitted to address him; even stately butler Jennings is rather more clearly enjoying Novello than he realizes. Novello has brought with him Morris Weissman (Balaban), a Hollywood producer in charge of the Charlie Chan series, who's hoping to get background for the next entry, "Charlie Chan in London." (All references to that real movie are authentic.)
The group of visitors arrives as Gosford Park for a Shooting Weekend -- the men all go out one day and slaughter pheasants, with the servants and women arriving later at a "folly" for an uncomfortable-looking picnic. But mostly, they're just there to gossip and visit, though two of the younger men are trying desperately to get money from the wealthy Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), the crude/honest man who owns Gosford Park with his much younger wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Furthermore it eventually becomes clear he's having an affair with head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson) -- and she's the only one to feel any sense of loss when Sir William is murdered.
A bumbling police inspector, Thompson (Stephen Fry), who can barely get a word in sideways -- for some time, he seems to be Inspector Tomp -- and who clearly hasn't a clue as to how to proceed with the investigation. His assistant is sharper, but still limited by his own intense awareness of the rigid class distinctions.
The huge ensemble cast is excellent, both upstairs and down, with the standouts being Maggie Smith (no surprise there), Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen (valet to Lord Stockbridge, Charles Dance), Kristin Scott Thomas and Kelly MacDonald as Mary Maceachran, maid to Constance. Mary, in fact, serves as the Charlie Chan of "Gosford Park," as she not only figures out who the killer is, but learns more about relationships than anyone else.
The upstairs scenes were actually shot at the stately manor "playing" Gosford Park; the rooms were redecorated to 1932 styles, and look handsome, even beautiful. But all of the "downstairs" sets were built at a British studio, though they look as authentic as the real-life settings. Again, the striving for authenticity is very clear, with dim lights, ugly paints and cramped rooms the norm for the servants.
"Gosford Park" was easily one of the best films of 2001, a lesson in a way of life that has almost completely vanished, as well as an engrossing, entertaining comedy-drama with excellent acting and technical work. It seems to get better with each subsequent viewing, which makes listening to the two commentary tracks a real delight. Again, if you have any interest in this film at all, the DVD is a must purchase.