Gosford Park


Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by:Julian Fellowes
Starring: Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Kelly McDonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Emily Watson
Released: March 14, 2002
Grade: A+

It’s 1932 and Sir William McCordle (Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Thomas), have invited some relations and close friends to spend the weekend at their mansion.  The men will have a chance to enjoy the pursuits of hunting and the women can catch up with talk of gossip and scandal.  Whilst they are the subject of much humour, it is not these wealthy socialites who are the real subject of Gosford Park.  Rather, it is their maids and servants to whom director Robert Altman has chosen to focus.

Despite their high-profile status, those upstairs hide many secrets.  Some are in loveless marriages, some are cheating on their spouses, some are facing financial ruin, and some are hiding their true identity.  These people are only concerned with their appearance and keep things well guarded to maintain their reputation.  Downstairs in the servants quarters, things are the exact opposite.  Despite their social status, they hear all of their employer’s secrets and aren’t afraid to spread information amongst themselves.  It’s a simple pleasure they get from their demeaning employment to make them feel superior to those they serve.

Midway through the film, Sir William is killed.  No one really cares.  The guests and servants care more about removing suspicion from themselves.   Inspector Thomas’s (Fry) arrival serves as a catalyst to the exposing of many hidden truths.  That’s the adorable essence of Gosford Park - it’s not a typical “who done it” story.  It’s a subtlety comedic tale of secrets.

Not once during the 137 minute running time was I distracted or disinterested.  The multitude of characters and subplots provides enough ammunition for more than one film.  Many storylines are left open and I love the way the film implies much without telling you the real truth.  Every time I saw two people alone together I immediate suspected a hidden relationship.  Isn’t it fun to speculate?

At the recent Golden Globe Awards, Ian McKellan introduced himself as one of the “very small group of British actors who are not in Gosford Park” and he wasn’t far wrong.  This the largest, most well-rounded cast I have seen assembled in perhaps ten years and all were rewarded with the best ensemble prize at the recent Screen Actors Guild Awards.  Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren have received Oscar noms but it seems almost unfair to single them out of the flawless matrix.  Of the remainder, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi and Ryan Phillippe were particularly exceptional.  The underrated Phillippe was an odd choice but his performance brings necessary attention to his intriguing character.

Let it be known that director Robert Altman is 77 years of age.  It’s incredible to envision someone of his age crafting such a film.  It’s very busy and in many scenes, you will be subconsciously following events in the foreground and background looking for more clues to help figure out who these people really are.  Altman’s prior credits include Short Cuts, The Player, Nashville and MASH.  All four earned him Academy Award nominations without success but Gosford Park gives him the chance to close an outstanding career with a final win.

People associate period piece films with images of slow romantic dramas featuring characters talking prim-and-proper English whilst wearing overly-extravagant costumes.  If that’s what you’re thinking then it’s time to open your mind.  Gosford Park is an intelligent, complicated, sly, intricate, hilarious, satirical film that simply must be appreciated.