Gosford Park

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Gosford Park takes the form of a classic whodunnit, very much in the mold of Agatha Christie stuff like Ten Little Indiansor Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile. In each case a group of people are in isolation — at a country house, on a train, on a boat — and a murder happens. (Sometimes more than one murder is involved.) The clues are planted, the red herrings are deployed, and a Hercule Poirot or some lesser sleuth goes into action. The idea, of course, is to figure out whodunnit before it is disclosed on screen.

But director Robert Altman isn’t much interested in the genre except as a taking-off place–and as the target of a spoof. The clues and foreshadowings are so emphasized and obvious that they wouldn’t challenge a mystery-buff beginner and Altman’s bumbling detective is so obtuse that he destroys more evidence than he ever finds, not to speak of ruling out a whole range of possible suspects based on sheer snobbery. If it’s a challenging guessing game you want, rent one of those Agatha Christie videos.

Altman is using the form forhis own, more interesting purposes. Gosford Park is, first and foremost, a frothy and pointed comedy of manners, with the mystery spoof running on a parallel, but subsidiary track. Set in England in 1932, the upstairs/downstairs class stratification is established from the very first scene in which Constance, the impossibly pampered Countess of Trentham (Dame Maggie Smith) is departing her somewhat shabby estate. While her maidservant, Mary (Kelly MacDonald) stands unmercifully exposed to the pouring rain, the Countess is sheltered from so much as a drop as she steps into her car, en route to a hunting party at the country estate of Sir William McCordle (Sir Michael Gambon). McCordle (a mere Baronet — a title reserved for commoners) is a self-made man, wealthy, and married (above his station) to glamorous Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is Constance’s niece.

All together there are more than a dozen guests upstairs, including a Hollywood movie producer, Weissman (Bob Balaban), and a matinee idol, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam). Downstairs, three martinets rule their own empires. Jennings, the butler (Alan Bates) is in charge of the footmen–including Sir William’s valet (Sir Derek Jacoby) and the visiting servants as well, including very suspicious (and randy) Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe). Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper (Helen Mirren), oversees the upstairs maids, including the savvy and confident Elsie (Emily Watson). Finally, Mrs. Croft (Dame Eileen Atkins) is the cook, reigning with absolute authority over the kitchen.

The story leisurely (better than two hours running time) follows the sexual and financial comings and goings of both masters and servants, not to speak of the behind the scenes minglings of the two. "We all have something to hide," says one, and the secrets spill out serially. The murder plot gives Gosford Park just enough forward momentum to support Altman’s usual skillful weaving together of multiple story lines and each story offers insight into class structure and the mores and social issues of the time.

Weissman serves as very funny comic relief–the democratic American unschooled in the subtleties of British snobbery. That he is making a Charlie Chan mystery about a murder in an isolated country house provides an extra bit of droll commentary to the proceedings. In contrast, Novello, a star in his own right, understands why he is included in a party such as this–he provides the entertainment and a bit of glamour and he knows how to behave as if he were a cultivated aristocrat. (One of the guests recalls seeing him in The Lodger; Ivor Novello was an actor who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 thriller.)

The script, Julian Fellowes’ first feature film, seamlessly incorporates a wealth of observation, both subtle and broad. When Weissman is introduced to one of the aristocratic guests, his name must be repeated; there’s just enough of a pause for the guest to absorb it, to be sure he heard it correctly. Nothing else is said–this is polite company–but the standing of a Jew amongst the English aristocracy has been noted. And it isn’t only Jews who suffer disdain. One supercilious line goes,"Would you stop sniveling? One might think you were Italian!" That line points up both the universal reach of British xenophobia and the high value placed on withholding emotional expression–it simply isn’t good form.

Visiting valets are addressed by the other servants using their master’s name. It makes it easier for all to remember who is who in this crowded household, but, more importantly, it underscores the dehumanization of the servants. The servants are often from generations of a family in the same trade; upward mobility is the exception in this rigid caste system. On the other hand, the servants’ own attitudes are in many ways as snobbish as those of their masters and they have their own pecking order amongst themselves.

All of this acute social observation is leavened with humor and the undercurrent of the mystery spoof, brought alive by a faultless cast. But, in a disappointing shortfall, it neither prepares for nor carries the weight of Altman’s conclusion with the impact for which it strives. Altman’s multi-character, multi-storyline mode has its merits and no one does it better than he, but the flip side is that it spreads the characterization possibilities thin and doesn’t allow for getting to know any of the characters in the depth that would allow for viewer identification and the resulting emotional charge. Still, after his less than stellar recent entries (Dr. T and the Women, Cookie’s Fortune), Gosford Park is a return to form for a director who stands in the top rank of American filmmaking.

Arthur Lazere

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