Gosford Park

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Julian Fellowes, based on an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban
With Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson

Rated R; 137 minutes. (2001)

Forget those fake wizards Albus Dumbledore and Gandalf; the real movie magician this season is independent-film granddaddy Robert Altman. His Gosford Park could have gone so wrong in so many different ways that it's doubly pleasurable to find it a rich, satisfying, complex and slyly funny film.

Gosford Park is both a genre picture and a commentary on several different genres. Set in 1932, it's the English country-house weekend, complete with grouse-shooting, grousing (mostly about money), a little sex and a lot of gossip. By the way, there's a murder - which is just about how offhandedly Altman treats what would normally be the centerpiece of the plot. Call it Agatha Christie meets Renoir's Rules of the Game, by way of P.G. Wodehouse and "Upstairs, Downstairs" - with just a dash of 19th-century melodrama.

It's all too easy to imagine how this material could have been ruined, either by another director or by Altman himself (when his films go wrong, they're not just a little off - they're wackily weird, like Dr. T and the Women and Popeye). What Altman does beautifully here - as he has done in some of his most successful films (M*A*S*H*, The Player) - is create an entire community of believable, vivid people. Every character - the upper-crust hosts and guests as well as the literal army of servants "below stairs" - has a spark of reality that shines through the conventions of their roles in society and their roles in the film.

Among the many themes that Altman plays with are the intertwinings and interdependencies between the classes. It's also appropriate to the hidden but central plot - that sex and its consequences can, and does, cross those supposedly impermeable class boundaries. The results can be tragic, comic and sometimes both. No movie in recent memory has made so clear why the English class system is of such enduring interest to dramatists. It's the equivalent of America's racial divisions - a well that, for the purposes of drama, can be dipped into again and again.

In Gosford Park, above and below stairs are definitely two separate worlds, but they are also reflections of each other. For example, on a country house weekend with a lot of guests in the house, the servants are referred to by their employers' surnames. In other words, if you're Lord Stockbridge's valet, you're Mr. Stockbridge to the rest of the servants - even if your name is Smith or Jones. I hope this is a detail that's historically accurate - it's too good not to be.

Because the divisions are so clear, all the film's "duet" scenes between individual members of the different classes provide a special thrill. Altman and his screenwriter Julian Fellowes expose the foibles and self-delusions that infect both groups, without condescending to either.

Like any good magician brewing a potion, Altman knows how important it is to get the right ingredients. He has assembled a dream cast featuring some of the best British and American actors working today. It pains me to pick out only a few of the players for praise (there are nearly 30 speaking parts), but Helen Mirren, as the head housekeeper, is fantastic, combining the clear-eyed fierceness of her Inspector Jane Tennison with a maternal sacrifice that would do Mildred Pierce and Stella Dallas proud.

Michael Gambon, as the millionaire host/murder victim is appropriately awful and yet somehow pitiful at the same time. Playing his wife, Kristin Scott Thomas looks down on her moneybag of a husband while at the same time knowing exactly where her bread - and everyone else's - is buttered. She both lightly mocks and totally inhabits her familiar chilly-Englishwoman persona, to good effect.

Below stairs, Emily Watson brings refreshing tartness and a seen-it-all demeanor to her role as a housemaid who provides more than turndown service to Gambon (she's the peppermint on his pillow). Kelly MacDonald is memorable as a young lady's maid who proves to be a natural detective (and far smarter than the actual, bumbling one played by Stephen Fry). Alan Bates, as the butler with his share of shameful secrets, is excellent - where has he been the last couple of years?

Jeremy Northam (as 1930s matinee idol Ivor Novello), Richard E. Grant (as a snide footman), Eileen Atkins (as the cook), Derek Jacobi (Gambon's valet), Bob Balaban (a visiting Hollywood producer) and Ryan Phillippe (a bisexual boy toy pretending to be a servant), Tom Hollander (a desperate brother-in-law saved by Gambon's timely demise) and Clive Owen (a handsome visiting valet and yes, melodrama fans, a long-lost child) all make significant contributions. This film is truly an example of there are no small parts, only small actors, and Altman has been lucky enough to get actors of size.

And then there's Maggie. Dame Maggie Smith, though she should be the queen of some country or other by now. I know she already has two Oscars (a big one for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a supporting one for California Suite) but toss another short, naked gold guy in her lap, she deserves it. As the Countess of Trentham, Smith does more than play her part - a penny-pinching aristo, dependent on Gambon for her allowance - she lives it. She gets the funniest lines and makes them funnier. She can say, with perfect sincerity, "I haven't got a snobbish bone in my body," and believe it - truly aristocratic people know they're superior, they don't have to be snobby about it. And although she is as hidebound by society's rules as anyone else (servants included), she at least can enjoy her cattiness and call a spade a spade. A remarkable performance from a remarkable performer.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give is that Gosford Park is a rich enough film to justify multiple viewings. In fact, a repeat viewing may be necessary to catch all the interactions and subtle patterns woven into the tapestry. Altman still has the magic touch, and he's willing to share it with the rest of us.

Film | Theater | Books  | Home Entertainment | Feature Article | Contact
Grin without a Cat (adamblairviews.com) is wholly owned by Adam Blair
All content Copyright 2004 Adam Blair. All Rights Reserved.
Site Design: C2K Multimedia