Queued Up #1: Gosford Park (2001)

Queued Up blog posts are movie reviews of films that I watch through Netflix DVD Home Delivery or on Netflix Watch Instantly. Gosford Park is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

Gosford Park. Dir. Robert Altman. USA Films, 2001. 137 mins.

Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, a murder mystery set in the English countryside between World War I and II, takes an ensemble cast full of A-list British acting talent and picks apart the British class system during the 1930s. The screenplay was written by Julian Fellowes, who has gone on  to create the PBS period drama Downton Abbey. (This makes complete sense, as Downton and Gosford share many of the same themes and stylistic choices. They even share an actress; Maggie Smith, who plays the Countess in both Downton and Gosford, changing the characters name only slightly from Trentham to Grantham.)

Gosford Park (2001) Dir. Robert Altman

Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) is hosting a hunting party and family and friends, along with their help, are descending on the Gosford Park estate. Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) has recently hired a maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), who acts as the audience’s guide to the downstairs. Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), a movie star, brings with him Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, who co-produced the film), an American Hollywood producer , and his valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe). The Lady of Gosford Park Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) has her sisters and their husbands attend as well, which includes Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance), and his valet Robert Parks (Clive Owen).

On the day of the hunt William is grazed with a bullet, which is determined to be an accident. Later that night during dinner, Lady Sylvia confronts William about profiting from World War I and Elise (Emily Watson), the head housemaid, defends him, revealing their secret relationship. William secludes himself in his library, and there he is stabbed in the chest and killed. The scenario seems to be set up by Agatha Christie herself. Everyone in the house seems to have a motive for the murder. Commander Meredith (Tom Hollander), a brother-in-law of Sylvia, is facing tough times financially and William is looking to be repaid from his previous investment. William is planning on cutting off the Countess’ allowance that was supposed to be a commitment for life. And Weissman is attending the party to inspire his new film that seems to resemble the murder which has just taken place.

As Ivor entertains the party on the piano, the servants all crowd around the entrances to the room and revel in secret the movie star and the beautiful music that he plays, and an unknown member of the house murders William, in the most beautifully realized and shot (and my favorite) scene of Gosford Park. In a ten minute span the murder mystery begins and the primary themes of the entire film are understood completely.

Ivor crooning to the Upstairs lords and ladies

The Downstairs servants sneak in a little shimmy

While this murder mystery is certainly enough to hold your attention, the truely satisfying moments of Gosford Park come from the strong characters and the themes explored. Aside from the depiction of the Upstairs/Downstairs dynamic in British society, which is executed quite admirably in the short two hours of this film,  Altman also devotes time to the the collapse of the British Empire, the importance of birth in determining you place in society, and the dependency that has developed between the lords and the servants, to name a few.

The film was nominated for two “Best Supporting Actress” Oscars for Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the Countess and Helen Mirren for her portrayal of Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper of Gosford Park. Maggie Smith may steal the show as the discontented, easily-irritated Countess, but my favorite performance was Clive Owen’s as Robert Park. While no one performance dominates the screen, how could it with the film bursting at the seams with characters, as all Altman films are, Helen Mirren has an outstanding scene at the end of the film, where she earns her Oscar nomination.

Gosford Park

While I enjoyed this film greatly, there were a few small choices that bugged at me. As with many mystery films the mystery of Gosford Park, while satisfying and not too far-fetched, did leave me wondering why I made note of every little piece of potential evidence. It’s not Sherlock Holmes where every clue adds up to an eventual realization. Though, maybe that was a flaw in my expectations. Even paying close attention to the murder’s pants, which I thought was clever, did not get me any closer to piecing together this whodunit.

Also, the character of the Police Inspector, played by Stephen Fry, was much too on the nose. While much of the interaction and dialogue between the servants and lords is nearly too close to commentary on the social structure, the Inspector took it over the edge. His line about the servants not needing to be interviewed because the don’t have a relationship with William horrendously obvious. Especially, after he spends every other scene ignoring the work and advice of the Constable (Ron Webster), who is a stand-in for the servant class in their relationship. The only thing those two characters add to the film is that plot point that William dies by poison. I imagine that Stephen Fry was cast for his comedic chops, but there were far more hilarious moments from the rest of the characters without having to add his useless character.

Overall a great character-driven prospective on the British way of life during that time. Any one who enjoyed Downton Abbey will love Gosford Park, although be ready for a bit of re-hashing of similar themes, of course. The only reason to be weary is if you are turned off by the large casts of other Altman works. If you have trouble keeping track of characters, steer clear of Robert Altman.

8 out of 10 stars – ★★★★★★★★

“What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? Its the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant; I’m better than good, I’m the best; I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”  – Mrs. Wilson

________________________________________________________

Other Observations:

♦ During the opening credits it says – “Based  upon an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban”. Okay… I guess that goes for most original screenplays (Which Gosford Park won the Oscar for in 2001). Maybe they were just trying to give Balaban some credit for the idea. I don’t know, but the next time I think up something good I’m going to make sure everyone knows that whatever it is, it’s based on my idea.

♦ Ivor Novello, a real actor in the 1930s, was a star of the 1927  Alfred Hitchcock silent film, The Lodger. The movie gets a few mentions during the film. I watched this movie only a few weeks ago, thought it coincidental.

♦ As I watched this film I couldn’t help but think of the 1939 Jean Renoir film, La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game). Between the hunting trip that brings these people together, to the criticism of high society (in France this time, instead of England), the two films are very similar. I would find it hard to believe that Altman was not thinking of La Regle du Jeu while making Gosford Park. There is even a death in Renoir’s film that highlights the worst of society.

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3 comments

  1. When I first watched this I wasn’t sure about it. Then I watched it again and realised how well constructed the film is and how each character contributes something interesting to the story.

    1. S. Stephens · · Reply

      The strength of this film is the story. It presents interesting themes while taking you up in a well-executed murder mystery, and it’s all propelled by excellent performances. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. (I’m usually not a huge fan of period piece films.)

      1. Totally agree the performances are one of the best things in the movie and the various themes are explored in an interesting and entertaining way

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