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,
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
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.