Running Time: 137 Minutes
Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay by Julian Fellowes
Based upon an idea by Altman and Bob Balaban
CAPSULE REVIEW: A
Manor house murder mysteries can sink to great lows (i.e., “Clue”–Colonel Mustard did it!) or provide diversionary entertainment (re-runs of Masterpiece Theater), but in the hands of Robert Altman, the genre is transcended. Here, Altman found a perfect proving ground for his love of ensemble casts, and in the wake of a few not-so-sparkling films, a little redemption in the eyes of fans and movie critics alike.
The storyline is not Gosford Park’s greatest strength, but the dialogue is very good, and the acting is excellent. Altman has assembled a dream cast of mostly English actors whom you will be sure to recognize. Especially Maggie Smith, who is wonderful as Constance, the Countess of Trentham. Her remarks to movie star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) are classic.
The class struggles of Britain are well-drawn with the divisions between the upstairs and downstairs (servants quarters). There are plenty of intrigues and saucy sexual escapades, decades old quarrels, and surprising family secrets.
And tiny humorous touches. The silverware is kept spit-and-polished (literally). The servants help themselves to a taste of Bloody Mary or a swig of leftover wine when they can manage it. And some of those in the greatest positions of power and authority prove to be the most incompetent. Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry from “Wilde” and “Wooster & Jeeves”), for instance, is the classic bumbling detective.
In the end the mystery is solved by one of the servants, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), who although new to her calling, has learned the most important aspect of being a perfect servant _ discretion.
1932. Sir William McCordle and Lady Sylvia McCordle have invited a houseful of guests for the weekend. William is hated by many of them, mostly for financial reasons. A pinch-penny miser, all William seems to care about is his little dog and keeping his glass of scotch well filled. But William’s sins are coming back to haunt him.
The only planned event for the weekend is a pheasant hunt. It sets an inauspicious start, however, when someone peppers William’s ear with grapeshot. He slaps a handkerchief to it and grumbles back to the house, never realizing that guns are the least of his worries. In the next 24 hours he will be both stabbed and poisoned!
There are many culprits to choose from. Here are just a few:
– His bastard son who has returned incognito as a servant after being abandoned to an orphanage some 20 years ago.
– His sister, Constance (Maggie Smith), whose allowance he has threatened to cut off completely.
– Elsie (Emily Watson) who is his latest sexual conquest amongst the servant girls and who he refuses to protect from his jealous wife.
– His jealous wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), who decides to have an affair with Henry Denton, the “valet” of a gay Hollywood producer who has come to spend the weekend as a research trip for his latest Charlie Chan Murder Mystery.
With comic director’s eye, Altman’s camera moves around the manor house, dwelling upon countless bottles marked “poison” and accessible to just about anyone.
Throughout the huge ensemble cast, perhaps the character we can most identify with is Mary, the servant to Constance. Though she is a young ingénue, Mary’s innocence and empathy allow her to pierce through the shams (beginning with Henry Denton’s fake Scottish accent). Although her leaps of intuition seemed a bit much, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy the character performances.
This is really a great film. It ranks up there with “MASH” and “The Player.” I’m even inclined to forgive Altman for his version of “Popeye” (1980) which I found a bit spooky as a young child and whose aftereffects I still have trouble shaking off some twenty years later.
Don’t wait for the Academy Awards to roll around. Go see “Gosford Park” today!