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Gosford Park

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Gosford Park

Starring: Clive Owen, Helen Mirren
Director: Robert Altman
Rated: R
RunTime: 137 Minutes
Release Date: January 2002
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Suspense




Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When I think of the typical American invited to a weekend at a suburban or country home, I picture a guy dressed in a ban-lon shirt with open collar, a pair of jeans or chinos, maybe Hush Puppies for shoes, dressed for action on the barbecue or for a game of pigskin on the 56-inch home entertainment center. This is pure heaven. His girlfriend is in a pair of casual slacks chatting with the other women, kutchy-cooing the baby and petting the host's puppy. How long do you think this typical American would last at a two-day blast in a British home loaded with lords and ladies where the staff virtually outnumbers the guests? If he wants to be polite, he might stay for four hours and then beat a hasty path to his hotel. One more thing: this is not a modern, stuffy party but the real thing: a gathering set in 1932 before Hitler took power in Germany and therefore before anyone can discuss anything interesting like politics or even pretend to be frightened for the future.

This is the scenario of Robert Altman's latest, his first excursion into picture-making in England. The great helmer, best known for his "Nashville" and given to a loose construction and seemingly casual direction, has always preferred naturalistic scenarios, capturing people living their lives pretty much the way you'd expect people in real life to go about their days. This time, however, Altman moves more in the direction of a tight script, still reveling in dialogue that involves people talking simultaneously as we all do in real life. Sometimes nothing much seems to be happening, but Altman, employing actor-turned-writer Julian Fellowes's screenplay, uses sophisticated, witty and urbane talk to reveal his principal performers' characters, both the public images and the real McCoys, and as we get to know each of these people we find ourselves busy unraveling a great deal of information about their common connections--in other words, what requires them to be where they are under the same roof at the same time.

While at first sight, "Gosford Park" looks like a witty, humorous sendup of Agatha Christie's mysteries, this is not a whodunit. After a murder takes place the audience becomes slowly aware of the motives (actually everyone in the household known as Gosford Park has a motive to get rid of a nasty piece of work). But whodunit is not the point and the murder, which barely turns this comedy of manners into melodrama, is a side issue, thrown in almost more as a homage to Christie than anything else. Altman's principal concern is the class structure of an aristocratic, extended family, but he reveals his characters in an unusual way--from the point of view of the servants rather than using the hired help as side characters. What is most interesting is the way the servants follow the class structure of their "betters" as though they are in a Shakespearean subplot mirroring the text of the principals.

Gosford Park is divided in half: the above stairs people who are the nobility and the below stairs folks who are their cooks, valets, a butler, and maids. To an outsider, the above stairs nobility are all independently wealthy, but we soon learn that many of them are on a kind of dole. They receive allowances from their rich uncle Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), a disagreeable older man who shoots birds for a hobby and would just as soon shoot any of his nieces, nephews and hangers-on as he would brutishly push a cup of unwanted coffee out of the hands of his servant. He is supporting the Countess of Trentham, Constance (Maggie Smith), the subtext being that women in England in the 1930's could not inherit property (correct me if I'm wrong). He has also played around quite a bit in his day, and his day has not ended in 1932, as he is carrying on an affair with the lovely servant Elsie (Emily Watson), who is rewarded for her services with the title of head housemaid. Sir William has invited Ivor Novello, his cousin (Jeremy Northam), a matinee idol (based on a real character) who is a composer, a singer, a playwright and an actor, to entertain the guests and Ivor in turn has invited Hollywood movie producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) to the country estate so that he can do research for his upcoming Charlie Chan Film. In a nice little twist of plot, handsome Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), who is Morris Weissman's valet and is called "Mr. Weissman" by the servants because strangely enough the custom is to call valets by their boss's names, is not at all what he seems to be.

When Sir William is murdered, late in the story, an event which thankfully does not turn this delicious comedy of manners into flat-out melodrama, it doesn't take long for Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and the constable he verbally abuses (Ron Webster to figure out the identity of the malefactor. What he does with the information is yet another of many small but enticing twists.

This, like most other works of Robert Altman, is an ensemble piece whose center is Kelly Macdonald in the role of Constance's maid, Mary Maceahran. She is a novice, learning the trade by catering to the whims of the cynical Constance, a role that make Maggie Smith the hilarious life of the party. The disdain she feels for the Jewish American producer, Weissman, comes out without restraint: when she is introduced to the bespectacled little man who, upon looking for the first time at Gosford Park remarks in a classless "This is a nice house," is a gem. "Who?" she replies when presented to the fellow? "Who?" she replies again, having certainly heard the name and showing her contempt for Jews, for Americans, and for people in the entertainment industry. When Weissman holds back from giving away the plot of his new movie to Constance because "I don't want to ruin it for you," Constance replies predictably enough, "Oh, don't worry, I don't expect to see your film."

With Clive Owen in the role of a valet brought up in an orphanage whose relationship to Sir William and housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) is the stuff of soap opera, and Kristin Scott Thomas in another major role as Lady Sylvia McCordle, the wife of Sir William, "Gosford Park" is an amusing, enlightening look at a system killed by World War II just as slavery died in the United States after the Civil War. The British gentry have hardly given up their snobbishness and feeling of what they consider the normal run of things putting them in a superior position. But Altman peels the modern onion to illustrate in a most entertaining way what British society today--minus the stereotypical servants' costumes and dinner suits--continues to be.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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