Gosford Park

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 12/22/01 10:31:40

"Hollywood, the fashion world, suburbia and now the English aristocracy"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

A meandering, elegant whodunnit that mixes revenge and ennui. The story takes place at Gosford Park, an enormous English country estate with two distinct worlds. The world above the stairs and the world below. The sanctity of this system is compromised by an American film producer who is doing research for his latest Charlie Chan film.

Being from California explains away his lack of manners. The aristocratic guests, who have gathered for a shooting party, arenít the slightest bit interested in the Hollywood guest and one of them, Constance, the Countess of Trentham played by Maggie Smith, is positively aghast that anyone should find entrance into her comfortable and traditional landed life through hard work or cunning.

Gosford Park is also a period piece and director, Robert Altman (Shortcuts, The Player, Ready to Wear), obsessed over details as fine as what underwear the maids should be wearing. The film looks like 1932. There is something to be said for the elegance of the aristocracy but I could do without the formality and the constraining social protocol.

You could be having an affair right in front of your wife and all your friends but if you conduct yourself in the proper way and everybody pretends its not happening, then it isnít. The watertight hull of the SS Gosford begins to show signs of a wear and leak threatens to sink the whole ship. A scandal isnít a scandal until people start talking about what they all already know.

Clive Owens and Hellen Mirren team up again (Greensleeves also starred the pair) as a visiting valet and the Gosford Housekeeper who also have their own secrets. The naÔve Mary, The Countess of Trenthams new maid, played by Kelly McDonald, acts as the pivot point. Through her we gain entrance into the house and we learn the discretion of the servants along with her. Things are not always as they seem and it is essential that they stay that way, even in the case of a murder.

Altman likes to carry the audience from character to character, a technique he uses in Gosford Park to keep the action flowing around the under stairs staff. The servants validate the story by being the witness of it. They are the audience for the show they put on every day, from dressing and pressing to feeding and cleaning.

Stephen Fry is the incompetant Inspector Thompson, who probably got the job because his father knew someone who knew someone and with a crumbling empire, a civil job was the only sure way of securing an income if one wanted to stay above the working class. Thatís how a lot of vicars got their jobs. He confuses evidence at a crime scene for comforts placed there for him to entertain himself while he interviewed the house. His assistant, Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) is a thwarted Sherlock Holmes who has to bow to the authority of the inspector.

A big deal was made about how Altman asked the actors to not stage their conversations but just to talk over each other and the sound people would figure it out later. I donít think this is particularly unique, or ďgeniusĒ but it works to convey the chaos of every day life and avoids the stagey feel of focusing the audiences attention on one conversation while still creating the illusion of a buzz around an animated party.

Nobody gets lost in the ensemble or is asked to carry an entire scene. There were so many characters though, that many of them remained undeveloped, especially the sisters of Lady McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), Lady Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville) and Lady Meredith (Natasha Wightman) and a couple of guests who appear at the beginning and again, leaving at the end and I had no idea what they were there for. Claudie Blakley who plays the dowdy and common Mabel Nesbitt, gets a real character rather than just a pretty dress to wear on screen. In fact, she is given a plain dress, but she also gets a soul, which is something lacking in the hardened aristocrats.

Thatís not to say that all the players didnít do the job they were given, but I love characters and I want to be indulged by everyone who is given weight in a script so I was a little disappointed there couldnít be more strands of the web held by Lady Stockbridge and Lady Meredith. No wonder Short Cuts and The Player are so long. There are so many alleyways that need to be wandered down to validate putting a character in the script in the first place.

Gosford Park is a pleasure to watch and gently reveals the remarkable rituals of the aristocracy and the servant class while creating plausibility around a variety of culprits until the final shocking revelation.

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