Stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Michael Gambon, Bob Balaban, Derek Jacobi
Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Julian Fellowes – based upon an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban
Gosford Park is a sophisticated drama-satire combining English manners with a country house murder mystery. The scene is set in 1932 England where an aristocratic family gathers its friends and relatives for a weekend of socializing and pheasant hunting. The sharply written film is chock-full of terrific actors swapping barbs in a range of accents from Standard British highbrow to country lowbrow, American and Scottish.
Upstairs, the selfish, snobbish and tedious lives of the rich are aptly depicted while downstairs or “below stairs” as they like to say, the more flavorful ones of the various servants capture our attention.
The country estate is owned by wealthy manufacturer, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), who’s married to the much younger and particularly uppity Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Among some of the people visiting on this drizzly weekend, are Sir William’s sniping aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) and her inexperienced but inexpensive maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald), wimpy American movie producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), his irreverent valet Henry (Ryan Phillippe) and famous actor/singer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), Sylvia’s sister Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) and her husband, Lord Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance), along his valet, the dark and somewhat mysterious Robert Parks (Clive Owen).
You’ll also come to know some of the estate’s servants: the efficient head butler Jennings (Alan Bates), Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), the opinionated Head Cook who has daily jurisdictional battles with the keenly perceptive Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) the Head Housekeeper, the ever proper Probert (Derek Jacobi), Sir William’s Valet, and Elsie (Emily Watson), the Head Housemaid who maintains a special no-so-secret relationship with Sir William.
But appearances do deceive amid all that pomp, circumstance and proper attitude. Upstairs, desperation, jealousy, blackmail and marital problems abound as many of the guests are only there to see how much money they can squeeze out old Sir William. Downstairs, bickering, gossip, secret liaisons and one-upmanship seem to be the order of the day.
It all makes for an interesting predicament when Sir William ends up murdered and everyone is a potential suspect. Enter Stephen Fry, the film’s true comic relief, as Inspector Thompson, a fairly incompetent Scotland yard detective who truly doesn’t know which end is up or down. Director Altman said, “It¹s not really a whodunit. It¹s more like, who cares?² The film is far more concerned with the characters’ mores than anything else.
Lotta says: It’s a gas to see all these fine actors together. The script is crisp. But sadly two of the film’s most notable talents, Alan Bates and Derek Jacobi, haven’t much to do. So too, a number of secondary characters above stairs might as well have been played by extras. You learn nothing about them. And a major flaw is the inability to hear many bits of dialogue, particularly by the servants. It’s more a technical problem rather than an accent-deciphering one. As for the pacing, slow in the beginning but picks up speed once you get a handle on who’s who. Fine stuff but a genre for an acquired taste.