movie film review | chris tookey

Gosford Park

© 2001 - USA Films - all rights reserved
  Gosford Park Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
Average Rating
8.73 /10
Kelly Macdonald, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe
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Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Julian Fellowes , based on an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban

Released: 2001
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US/ GB
Colour: C
Length: 132

A murder takes place in a country house.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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And now for something completely traditional - a Thirties murder mystery set during a country house weekend. This may sound like an Agatha Christie whodunit, and 76 year-old American director Robert Altman is enough of an old pro to keep us guessing to the end. But really this is more of a whydunit, probing the social pressures that might result in such a criminal act.

The cast list is virtually a compendium of the classiest British actors around. It comes as a major surprise that Judi Dench and Paul Scofield have somehow contrived not to be in it. Michael Gambon, frequently hammier on screen than he ever is on stage, here seems either inspired or shamed by the surrounding company into turning in his most restrained and telling work as Sir William McCordle, a self-made multi-millionaire with more than an employer's interest in one of his more alluring maids (Emily Watson), and a fraught relationship with his much younger, coldly beautiful, austerely aristocratic wife (played, as if you haven't already guessed it, by Kristin Scott Thomas, pictured right).

Sir William is hosting a hunting party for an entire weekend, the way you do. Guests include his wife's aunt (Maggie Smith), a world-class snob who is humiliatingly dependent on Sir William for an allowance, and a formidably boring local dignitary, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and his impossibly weedy son (James Wilby).

The hostess's petulant brother-in-law (Tom Hollander) is hoping to get Sir William to invest in a transparently dubious business enterprise. The actor-composer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), has been invited along to sing for his supper, and has brought a crass, homosexual American film producer (Bob Balaban).

Below stairs is just as starry, with Alan Bates as the ebulliently regimental butler, and Derek Jacobi playing Sir William's creepily deferential valet. Helen Mirren is chilly and authoritative as the head housekeeper. Eileen Atkins rules the kitchen as the strained-looking cook. Richard E. Grant provides comic relief as the cheerfully insolent first footman.

As if these weren't enough, four more central characters are visitors to the house. Kelly Macdonald plays Lady Constance's naive but perceptive new maid. Ryan Philippe (pictured left) is a handsome young American who claims to be (but obviously isn't) the film producer's manservant, and who is soon visiting the mistress of the house's bedchamber for more than a late night Bovril. Clive Owen broods as a mysterious valet who doesn't act like one.

Just as you think the house can't get any more crowded, Stephen Fry even turns up as a police inspector seemingly intent on bungling the investigation and turning the British police into a laughing stock.

With so much acting talent on display, it's hardly surprising that Julian Fellowes's script doesn't find enough for all of them to do. I found it hard to imagine why the supremely talented Derek Jacobi took on so miniscule a role, and can only conjecture that much of it now lies on the cutting-room floor.

So cluttered is the cast-list - there are 45 speaking roles - that it's hard to keep track of who precisely is what to whom. Too much time is spent on setting up roles that never develop beyond caricature, and three or four make a negligible contribution to the plot. And while we're on the subject of caricature, Stephen Fry's late turn as England's answer to Inspector Clouseau belongs to an altogether broader, more farcical piece.

Although we are invited to see the house through the eyes of Kelly Macdonald's maid, it's hard to empathise very much with anyone. And when she discovers the solution that has so comprehensively eluded the police, it's not altogether plausible - and itís steeped in a disappointingly facile view of the English class system.

Altman has always been over-fond of smug social satire, and to see it resurfacing in this context is all the more irritating, since Julian Fellowes's intricate screenplay is strong on the minutiae of house-party etiquette and the long-forgotten benefits of knowing where one belongs in the class hierarchy. One of the most original sequences arises when one of the servants who is posher than he seems is unmasked as a fraud, to the fury of those below as well as above him.

But it would be churlish to moan too much about a film that manages to be entertaining for almost all of its 132 minutes.

The likeliest winner of major acting awards is Maggie Smith, never funnier on film than this, especially when she is disparaging Hollywood or commenting acidly on Ivor Novello for being an upstart showbiz personality. Her performance is a master-class in imperious irony, especially when she commiserates poisonously with Novello on his last film: "It must be rather disappointing when something flops like that".

Helen Mirren shows in this, as she did in her previous one, Last Orders, that she has matured into one of the world's finest actresses.

A younger thesp also in his prime, Jeremy Northam, reveals a pleasant singing voice in addition to his talent for urbane comedy; and Richard E. Grant turns in a wonderfully funny, nuanced performance as a footman with a beady attitude towards his supposed superiors.

This is easily Robert Altman's most rewarding film since Short Cuts, nine years ago. It's often amusing, occasionally touching, always magnificently designed, and superbly photographed with a fluidity that recalls, even if it doesn't quite match, Altman's very best work on Nashville and The Player.

It's a joy to see so stellar a cast enjoying themselves to such entertaining effect - as well as a sad reminder of how poorly used most of them have been by the British film industry.

This is one Robert Altman picture that can be recommended even to those who don't normally like Altman movies.

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