Murder can be such an inconvenience
Wrapped in the package of an Agatha Christie style who-dunnit, Gosford Park is a masterfully crafted exploration of British High Society in the early 20th century, as viewed through the eyes of the serving class. While not a film for the masses, those who are willing to invest little more than two hours of their time will be handsomely rewarded with some of the finest acting and filmmaking to come along in quite some time.
Facts of the Case
We are cordially invited to the country estate of Sir William and Lady Sylvia McCordle for a weekend shooting party. Joining us are Lady Sylvia's family: daughter Isobel, Lord and Lady Stockbridge, Commander and Lady Meredith, the Honorable Freddie and Mabel Nesbitt, Lord Rupert Standish and friend Jeremy Blond, Sylvia's aunt, Lady Constance—Countess of Trentham, and Sir William's cousin Ivor Novello (world renowned actor) along with his guest Hollywood associate Mr. Morris Weissman. However, we will be entering through the servant's quarters. It is here where we will be spending the weekend, shadowing the resident and visiting servants under the direction of Mr. Jennings (the McCordle's Butler), Mrs. Wilson (the Houskeeper), and Mrs. Croft (the Cook). As the weekend progresses, we bear witness to the precision workings of the household staff (from early morning to late at night), the relationships between members of the staff and this highly dysfunctional family, and the myriad of secrets held by members of both worlds. At the height of the weekend's tensions and festivities, we find ourselves in the midst of a murder mystery. Sir William is dead and almost everyone has a motive. But watching and listening to the goings on in the house are far more interesting than trying to figure out who really committed the crime—if in fact it was a crime at all.
Actor Bob Balaban and director Robert Altman wanted to do a period murder mystery in the style of the great Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, or Sherlock Holmes. However, as the concept developed, the murder was to be used merely a plot device to delve into pre-World War II British society and the social hierarchy of the privileged and serving class. What was perfectly normal to them is revealed as nothing short of ridiculous to us. The privileged class lives upstairs with all of their luxury, eccentricities, and self-governing acceptabilities. For example, if you are carrying on a torrid affair with a member of the staff, no one will mind as long as you don't discuss it in public. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the serving class lives downstairs, working together round the clock like a precision pit crew. For each member of the family there exists a personal servant (a ladies maid for the ladies and a valet for the gentlemen), each taking on the name of their master or mistress, so as to avoid confusion. This is in addition to the rather large resident household staff (parlor maids, kitchen maids, footmen, stable boys, etcetera) each with their own rules and regulations. In both worlds, it is your own fault if you don't know the rules—and by breaking them you will be duly punished.
Altman and Academy Award winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes have deftly and painstakingly recreated this world with so many levels it is impossible to absorb it all in one sitting. (To insure the authenticity of it all, Altman and producer David Levy enlisted the service of four technical advisors, all of who worked in service during the 1930s.) There are so many plot lines unfolding you can watch the film several times, each focusing on a different character or relationship, and uncover many things you hadn't previously noticed. In fact, Altman admits he never expected his audience to understand everything that is going on, likening it to a large dinner party in which you only have time to meet a handful of guests.
We are able to view the weekend's goings on through the eyes of the downstairs staff, more specifically Lady Constance's maid Mary (an exceptional performance by Kelly MacDonald). She is part tour guide and part amateur detective, through whom we gain insight into and ultimately resolve many of the major plot lines. The rest of the staff is equally important as Altman will only reveal upstairs activity when one of them is present. The gossip between the staff provides us with the necessary backstory on each of the major upstairs characters and their relevant relationships. These servants miss nothing and come across as much more knowledgeable than their privileged counterparts.
The cast is a collection of British stage and screen royalty. Dame Maggie Smith is at the top of her game as the gossipy aunt everyone loves to hate. Alan Bates is truly compelling as Jennings, the authoritarian head of the household trying hard to conceal the chink in his armor. Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott Thomas are magnificent as the duplicitous couple, Sir William and Lady Sylvia. Helen Mirren gives an Oscar worthy performance as the duty bound drill sergeant Mrs. Wilson. Emily Watson is perfect as the adventurous housemaid Elsie. Jeremy Northam lends his exceptional musical talents to the role of Ivor Novello, the only historical character in the film. Stephen Fry's performance as the bungling Inspector Thompson is all too brief. The lone Americans, Bob Balaban and Ryan Phillippe, hold their own against their British counterparts, with Phillippe adding some exceptional moments for others to play off of. Brief appearances by Emma Thompson's sister Sofie (as still room maid Dorothy) and Dame Judi Dench's daughter Finty Williams (as housemaid Janet) exemplify the depth and breadth of this remarkably talented ensemble.
The transfer itself is fantastic in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen capturing the vibrant colors and artifact filled halls and rooms upstairs, as well as the stark muted contrast of the world below. Dolby 5.1 Surround and Patrick Doyle's haunting (downstairs) and whimsical (upstairs) score, combined with Jeremy Northam's piano playing and vocals (all done live on set) envelope the viewer, transporting us all back to 1930s England.
The extras on this disc are plentiful and exceptional. Two commentary tracks are provided. The first by director Robert Altman, production designer Stephen Altman, and producer David Levy is interesting but contains a great deal of dead air. To make matters worse, you don't even know who the third member of the discussion is until they introduce themselves at the very end. The second track by screenwriter Julian Fellowes is fascinating and much more engaging as he delves into the historical origins of the story and class system. If you are going to choose only one, I recommend this. The 20 minutes of deleted scenes are mostly transitional pieces with little value to the overall story. Two extracted sub-plots involved the changing of Sir William's will and a previous affair between Lady Sylvia and Lord Stockbridge (her brother-in-law). Altman apparently shot many alternate scenes exposing the same plot information, which resulted in what you see here. Moving on, you can skip the cast and filmmaker bios and gain more insight by viewing the film's page on the Internet Movie Database. However, please take the time to view the 20 minute "making of" featurette, which will only serve to enhance your second viewing of the film—which is also strongly recommended. Two more highly recommended features include the eight-minute "Authenticity" piece and the 25 minute question and answer session (with Altman, producer Levy, screenwriter Fellowes, actors Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Jeremy Northam, and a late arriving Ryan Phillippe) hosted by the American Motion Picture Association—one of the most unique features I've seen included on a DVD.
Given its subject matter, many filmgoers may pass over this disc on their next trip through Best Buy or Blockbuster. While on the surface this may appear to be an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, this film is a gem to be polished and displayed front and center on the fireplace mantle. Fans of the genre and of Altman should most definitely make it a part of their collection, while everyone else should take the time to rent and appreciate it. Hands down the best film of 2001, in my humble opinion.
Gosford Park is found guilty of being a film comparable to a fine wine, one that will only get better with age. Robert Altman is hereby sentenced to teaching young filmmakers the power of the medium and the mastery of his craft. This court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Robert Altman, Production Designer Stephen Altman, and Producer David Levy
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