Saturday, August 31, 2013

GOSFORD PARK 2001

Adapting Robert Altman’s trademark, multi-character, freeform narrative style to the formalized structure of a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery is such an inspired concept, I’m rather surprised it took until near the end of Altman’s 50-plus years in film  for someone to think of it. But after tackling musicals (Popeye), westerns (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), farce (Beyond Therapy), romantic comedy (A Perfect Couple), film noir (The Long Goodbye), the psychological thriller (Images), and satire (The Player); a good, old-fashioned whodunit was just about the only genre left for one of the more resilient and versatile filmmakers to come out of the New Hollywood.
Robert Altman has been one of my favorite directors since I first discovered him in the early 70s. But following the rather (for me) dismal back-to-back entries of Cookie’s Fortune (1999) and Dr. T and the Women (2000), I really thought Altman had gone the way of another 70s favorite, Peter Bogdanovich: dried up creatively, his best work behind him. I was wrong. Like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman proved himself to be one of those directors capable of delivering surprisingly fresh and innovative work well into their 70s. Indeed, at the ripe old age of 75, Altman’s Gosford Park revealed the director in his finest form since 3 Women (1977), delivering not only one of his most solid and well-realized films, but his biggest boxoffice hit since M.A.S.H.(1970).
Maggie Smith as Lady Constance Trentham
Clive Owen as Robert Parks
Kristen Scott Thomas as Lady Sylvia McCordle
Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello
With Gosford Park, the collaborative efforts of Robert Altman, producer Bob Balaban, and writer Julian Fellowes combined to create a marvelously layered recreation of a traditional English-style crime mystery with a decidedly Altman-esque twist. The twist being that the mystery—a murder taking place during a weekend shooting party at English country estate in 1932— is not seen from the point of view of the aristocratic set of relatives and guests, but rather, from the perspective of the servant class, below stairs. It’s a simple yet ingenious device allowing for the filmmakers to cleverly intermingle the crosscutting stories of some 35 characters, while making keen observations on everything from the class system to changing times, sexual mores, social conventions, personal relationships, and cultural differences.
Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson
Alan Bates as Jennings
Emily Watson as Elsie
Kelly Macdonald as Mary Maceachran
In detailing a strained weekend in the country in which virtually all in attendance have something to hide or something they’re after; Altman’s legendary virtuosity behind the camera serves the misleadingly conventional setup exceptionally well. In fact, not since Nashville has Altman’s celebrated “bag of tricks” (overlapping dialog, peripheral activity, cross-cutting storylines, ensemble cast of  characters harboring secrets) seemed so organic to the material. Ostensibly hemmed in by the rigid constraints of the religiously-adhered-to rules of the British social class structure, Altman actually comes off as more liberated than ever. There’s something in Julian Fellowes’ (Downton Abbey) surprisingly witty, culturally-precise script that presses most of Robert Altman’s best qualities to the forefront (I can’t think of a single director capable of getting us to keep track of, let alone care about, so many characters), while suppressing a great many of his weaknesses (the English locale spares us Altman’s fondness for the easy laugh of hayseed southern accents).
Michael Gambon as William McCordle
Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Croft
Bob Balaban as Morris Weissman
I saw Gosford Park when it opened in 2001, and, clocking in at a little over two hours, it's a film I was nevertheless sorry to see come to an end (a problem happily remedied by the DVD which contains loads of deleted scenes!). In a world where one finds oneself grateful if a film is comprised entirely of smart clichés instead of stupid ones; Gosford Park is an endangered species: a film that actually surprises. Somehow, while still adhering to the genre conventions of an Agatha Christie crime drama (or, as is frequently referenced, a Charlie Chan thriller) Gosford Park manages to confound expectations.The comedy is sharp, the drama is well-played and frequently touching, the characters are dimensional, the mystery element engrossing, and its subthemes on class differences poignant and eye-opening.
Of course, the biggest surprise of all is that after all these years, I'm never at a loss for discovering new things in film.
A particular favorite of mine is Camilla Rutherford as Isabel McCordle.  She and Mabel Nesbitt are characters with story arcs I'd describe as classically Altman-esque.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Perhaps the right word here is “grateful.” What I’m grateful for about Gosford Park is the depth of its intricacy. It's an entertaining film that breezes along, providing both character-based humor and genuinely affecting dramatic moments, yet Gosford Park has a great deal more on its mind than just providing a solid mystery and a houseful of suspects. It's a very smart, nicely-observed look at the kinds of surface behaviors and rituals that people engage in that mask who and what they really are. And all this is layered atop a social satire and comedy of manners contrasting self-imposed hierarchies of status within those that are socially-imposed. It's a film just brilliant in it's complexity, chiefly because you can ignore any and all of these and still enjoy the movie a great deal.
From every conceivable angle Gosford Park is a marvel of logistics. So many stories to tell, so many characters, so much information to impart...and yet, the film feels light and effortless. That Altman is able to deliver to us so many interesting characters in so brief a time is a skill he has demonstrated several times before; his being able to do so while simultaneously enlightening us to the myriad duties and rituals that go into the running of an English manor house is something else again.
Gosford Park is a great film for repeat viewings. It's staggering the amount of subtle details one misses when first just trying to figure out "whodunit." The interwoven lives of all the characters become much clearer.
For me, it's such a delight to see a film that asks something of you. That requires your attention, mental involvement, and active participation in following along and picking up on all the layers provided. It’s great not to have everything spelled out for you, or to have a camera continually directing your gaze towards where to look and why. Gosford Park assumes an alertness from its audience and rewards you with a story that pays off as terribly smart mystery, comedy, character drama, and social commentary.
Stephen Fry as Inspector Thompson
PERFORMANCES:
The nearly all-British cast assembled for Gosford Park is an eye-popper. Made all the more impressive by having some of the most distinguished actors (Knights! Dames!) democratically blended and divided between the upstairs and downstairs cast. Dame Maggie Smith steals scenes and looks quite at home as the snobbish  dowager Countess (a role that is essentially a dry-run for the one she would assume 9 years later in Downton Abbey); but it's great fun seeing Sir Alan Bates as the butler of the household, silently occupying scenes like an extra; or Dame Helen Mirren (since 2003), makeup-less and relegated to below stairs quarters. And as Gosford Park is a murder mystery, such egalitarian casting works much to the film's benefit, as it is impossible to play the "billing" game here (trying to guess the victims and guilty parties based on star rank).
Geraldine Sommerville as Louisa Stockbridge (younger sister of Lady Sylvia)
Altman films have a reputation for being well-cast, and Gosford Park is no exception. As was the case with A Wedding, Altman makes it easier for us to tell who's-who by casting actors who look as if they could plausibly be related

The performances in Gosford Park are so uniformly excellent that it's both pointless and futile to try to single out a particular actor. I confess to finding Ryan Phillippe to be the weakest link, although even in this instance his blank screen persona works well within the film's context. Nor am I too fond of Stephen Fry's Inspector Thom...(above stairs, no one lets him complete his introduction), which feels like another of Altman's risky forays into needlessly broad farce (think Opal in Nashville). Certainly certain characters and their storylines stand out more than others, but if you're like me, you'll wind up having a different "favorite" each time you view the film.
Claudie Blakley as Mabel Nesbitt, serenaded by Ivor Novello

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
There's no escaping the feeling when watching Gosford Park, that one is watching the most elegant, life-sized game of CLUE ever! The narrow, bygone world depicted is meticulously recreated in the seamless blending of locations and sets, outrageously gorgeous clothing, and an attention to period detail in makeup and hairstyles that fittingly recall the very sort of films Gosford Park pays homage to.
Derk Jacobi as Probert, Sir William's valet
All this lavish period-detail fetishism would be off-putting were it not used in service of dramatizing the huge difference in the lives of the "haves" and "have-nots" of Gosford Park. And this is why Robert Altman was one of my all-time favorites, for while the average director would be content to have us ooh and ahh over the jewels, gowns, and luxury of the life depicted, Altman matches every loving close-up and perfectly framed shot of upstairs opulence with a similar shot in the tight and privacy-free servant's quarters. He never preaches or tells us what we should feel about it all, but unlike say, the inappropriately worshipful depiction of wealth in 1974s The Great Gatsby, Gosford Park captures it all, but with a conscience.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
Gosford Park ranks among my top five favorite Robert Altman films. I’m also an avid Downton Abbey fan...a fact that really intrigues me. Not only about myself but about America. American audiences aren’t known for taking British culture to its bosom, but Julian Fellowes’ tales of servants and the social classes seem to have struck a chord with us.
Speaking for myself, I suspect there is something about the distancing effect and “otherness” of British society class struggles that allows me to be entertained by them in ways unthinkable were these tales told about contemporary wealthy American households with maids, nannies and the like. We Americans still have yet to come to terms with our own race-based class systems, so it is infinitely easier to watch narratives which feature white characters both above and below stairs. A lot of uncomfortable subtext is avoided. In my own experience, I can can attest to there definitely being a distancing issue here that make these shows and this film easier to digest as just entertainment.
Gosford Park boasts a beautiful musical score
There's an absolutely charming sequence where we're shown the servants hiding in the shadows to listen to the music coming from the drawing room. Ironically, the aristocracy is bored by it, while the lower classes, prohibited from being seen listening to it, are transported by it. 

Were there to ever be a film about slavery in America (or even the recent past of the Jim Crow era or the 1960s) in which the slaves are depicted not as they usually are (a social issue), but as fleshed-out, fully-realized characters with the same level of dimensional humanity as the servants of Gosford Park or Downton Abbey – varied, unique individuals with their own hopes, personalities, and emotional agonizes derived from their life circumstances…I’m pretty sure my heart would never stop breaking.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

25 comments:

  1. Hi Ken, I am one who came late to Downton Abbey (mid-3rd season) and only very recently caught up by binge-watching its earlier seasons. As a result, I was preparing to take another look at Gosford Park (haven't seen it since it was in theaters) when I noticed you'd posted a new review. Great minds...

    Gosford Park is my favorite Altman film. Such a departure for him, and so perfectly realized...I think it was only with Gosford Park that I "got" what a truly fine filmmaker he was.

    As always, your review is thoughtful and articulate and a great read. I wonder if the day could come - in our lifetime - when a film like the one you imagine, depicting American slavery and slaves as you describe, might actually be made.



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    1. Have to agree with you about "Gosford Park" being a film that really shows what a fine filmmaker Altman was. A thoroughly engaging mainstream film with the feel of an indie.
      And if you haven't seen it since 2001, I think you're in for a treat. Seriously, this film becomes better and smarter on second glance.
      Thanks again for your always thoughtful comments and kind words!

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  2. Gosford Park is one of my favorite all time movies, but I must also admit that I'm a sucker for well done movies and BBC shows that are set in the UK. While not well acted or even written for that matter, I had to own Upstairs Downstairs, the original we all watched on PBS in the 70's; the love started there. From there Shadowlands came my way, then Gosford Park and then the BBC version of Sense and Sensibility which is better than the movie could ever hope to be. Now I am hooked on Persuation.

    Ken, as always a great write-up and this time in the world that I think I was meant to live in.

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    1. Hi Cathy
      I've never seen "Upstairs Downstairs", but have thought about checking out some of the episodes on YouTube. I had forgotten about "Shadowlands", however, and how much I enjoyed it so many years ago.
      It sounds like you have an affinity for this era, in which case "Gosford Park" is understandably a favorite. I appreciate your commenting and thank you for your compliment on the post. Hope to hear from you again!

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    2. Ken, When watching Upstairs/Downstairs, remember it was done in the 70's :)

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  3. Good heavens, that final still as shown above is terrifying!

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    1. Yes, precisely, Ken! As somebody who grew up eating in front of the television rather than the table, the prospect of being faced with such a surfeit of silverware is intimidating to say the least. Five forks, three knives, but only one spoon? What sort of mad person set this table? It makes me wonder if "Gosford Park" had an etiquette expert much like they did in "Age of Innocence". I could imagine the conversation:

      Altman: Will somebody explain to me why the hell there are FIVE FORKS at each place at the table?

      Assistant To Mr Altman (nervously): Erm, apparently, sir, this extravagant arrangement of cutlery is entirely authentic to the upper class of England, circa 1932.

      Altman: But FIVE FORKS? What the hell for?

      Assistant To Mr Altman: (shurgs)

      Altman: And it was really like this, you say?

      Assistant To Mr Altman: (nods sheepishly) "So says the etiquette expert hired to work with us on the film, sir."

      Altman: "But five forks...35 characters...aw, alright, let's shoot this thing already and get it over with, it's freezing in this part of the world".

      Based upon the above review, I must see this someday, if only I can brave the over-the-top customs of the English aristocracy!

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    2. The DVD for Gosford park features interviews wth several of the "technical advisers" on the film. Former servants in stately English homes who helped keep everything real. Soooo much pomp and circumstance...so many rules. You literally could make the most grievous social error just by getting up in the morning at the wrong time.
      You call attention to one of the very things "Gosford Park" does so well. It's peopled with a couple of characters very unfamiliar with English customs, and Altman/ Fellowes frequently puts into the mouths of those characters, the very questions that spring into mind of American's watching the film (So there is a scene in which someone addresses the need for so many forks).
      Mention is also made of the "Table of Precedence", which dictates, by rank, where individuals are placed at the table and in what order. I sought this information out myself and was fairly flabbergasted and confused by it all. Such traditions make "Gosford Park" as fascinating a trip into another world as any science fiction film. I think you'll like "Gosford Park" should you ever seek it out.

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  4. Thank you, Ken, for another great review! Or should I say "maaarvelous"? I too love films set in Britain. You captured the magic of "Gosford Park" in your review. So many wonderful actors. Where to begin? Kristin Scott Thomas is my fave. I have a friend who repeatedly watched the scenes with Maggie Smith being sarcastic.

    The film has become one of my favourites. I don't want it to end when I watch it. It's heart breaking at times and has, as you say, so many diensions. "Downton Abbey" has passed me by completely. I know everyone loves it. It just seems like "Gosford Park" light. Am I wrong? I should give it a try.
    -Wille

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    1. Hello Wille
      And thank you. Yes, this movie seemed to give Maggie Smith something like a third career. She's marvelous, as usual, but she has carved a niche for herself as a sarcastic oracle these days. Like an octogenarian Farrah Fawcett, "Downton Abbey" would not be the same without her.
      Kristin Scott Thomas is a favorite of mine as well. The kind of woman I love watching onscreen but would loathe in real life.
      Your statement about not wanting "Gosford Park" to end is actually a good explanation for why I love "Downton Abbey" so much: I agree with you that it is "Gosford Park"-light, but I so love looking at this world that Altman gave us a glimpse into that, the TV program (which is excellent, but nowhere near as richly envisioned as Altman's film) is a way for "Gosford Park" to never end.

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  5. Another great review for your canon, Ken. Mr. Altman was tragically robbed of yet ANOTHER Oscar for his masterful work here. Really, what did that man need to do, wear a tutu and recite the Declaration of Independence backwards? Oh and also, for "The Stuff of Fantasy," may I present Mr. Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello. Also re: "The Stuff of Dreams."

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    1. Hello, Tanya
      Ha! If you ever saw the film he made immediately following this - "The Company" - you'd see how amusingly on the button your description of what Altman would have to do to get Oscar recognition is.
      Directors like Altman always seem to point to the essential irrelevance of the Academy Awards. He consistently made intriguing, risk-taking movies, yet he has to get a special Oscar to rectify years of wrongs.
      And I'm with you on Jeremy Northam, and I'm so glad you mentioned him. After Dame Maggie, Miren, and Scott Thomas got all the accolades, there was little mention of what a fabulous job he did in the film. the stuff of dreams, indeed!

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  6. Argyle, here. Thanks for featuring this one and reminding me to revisit it. I loved it when it came out; it has such confidence. You're so right that Altman seemed to be able to inhabit different genres with apparent ease and find the organic elements that fed his particular interests. Maybe it's that he really seemed to love people. When I think of Coppola's or Scorcese's various excursions into musicals or period/costume pieces they always seem to be so SELF conscious and overly concerned with some technical or logistical feat, not really about the people. I know this is a huge generalization, but anyway. I need to watch this again, soon. I just watched "3 Women" for the first time and tried to get my thoughts together, but really, the film so confidently creates a world and then explores and creates every possible nuance within it, what can I add? I'll just live in it for a while. Your last paragraph is bracing. Maybe someday this will happen. What an opportunity for an artist. It WILL happen. And we'll all be better for it. On a lighter note, if I'm ever invited to a stately home (unlikely) and faced with a place setting like that, I hope I'll remember two concepts I came across somewhere: start from the outside and work your way in and, when in doubt, do what the hostess does. Thank you, Ken!!

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    1. Hi Argyle
      I really love the point you make about Robert Altman's work being distinguished by his love of people. I think that's right on the nose. I've never encountered a director more concerned with the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the human race.
      And that word "confidence" you used perfectly captures the quality this film exudes. How else to explain the fact that you are introduced to some 30-plus characters with criss-crossing names and alliances, and yet you feel totally confident that you are in good hands. You know that Altman is going to beautifully handle this rather daunting task he'd set for himself.
      Love that you watched "3 Women" for the first time recently...such an amazing film!
      As for my last paragraph, perhaps that film HAS already been made and I just never heard of it? If not, as you say, what an opportunity for some visionary!
      Lastly, you are absolutely right about the Emily Post protocol of all that silverware. Those glasses are another matter!
      Thank you Argyle, insightful and enjoyable as ever!

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  7. This was such a lovely, yet somehow maddening film - the maddening-ness is not in the film itself, but in watching the British social structure at play and noticing the difference in the upper and lower lives (or even the microcosmic differences in status within the upper classes, such as the man who keeps belittling his rich but socially awkward wife). I remember so vividly Helen Mirren's great speech near the end on what makes a good servant--in effect, a person without his own life; how much that summed up what we had been watching. I think my favorite character was Emily Watson's cheeky maid, because she had a mind of her own and expressed it (in her make-up she looked very much like a young Ginger Rogers or Glenda Farrell, VERY 30s). The film was like a plum pudding, so well stuffed with sweets, and you tell me there's more on the DVD! I shall have to check it out to see the deleted scenes -- what an indulgence!

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    1. Hi GOM!
      You make a point very similar to one my partner made upon seeing the film. He loved how Altman noted the subtle inhumanities and cruelties of the British social structure, both upstairs and down. The clothes,setting, and manners are so lovely, one is apt to overlook how empty a life it was for the servants.
      I greatly appreciated the period detail in the women's hair and makeup, and indeed, Emily Watson DOES remind one of Glenda Farrell.
      Oh, and if you get a chance to get the DVD, it's marvelous. Altman's commentary is like a film class, and all the "making of" extras will have you marveling that the film ever came together. It looked like planning a battle!
      Nice to hear from you GOM. You've been missed on your blog!

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  8. I'd like to know what are your thoughts on "The Long Goodbye", Ken.

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    1. Hi
      Rather surprisingly, I only got around to seeing "The Long Goodbye" for the first time last year, and I loved it. I really liked how the film created this "man out of step with the times" thing with Gould's Marlowe. I'd like to do a full post on it someday, but it stands in my mind as a successful example of the kind of genre-deconstruction Martin Scorsese tried to do with "New York, New York"; i think Altman brought a laid-back 70s feel to the 40s film noir. Thanks for asking for my opinion! I take it the film is a favorite of yours?

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    2. Ha, indeed it is one of my faves. It's so crazy and slapsticky. Glad you like it, I think you're a passionate movie fan and I value your opinion.

      (been lurking around your blog for quite a while now)

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    3. I'm flattered you found my blog worth lurking in, and I'm happy you came out of hiding to share your comments (and kind compliments).
      I think "Gosford Park" is a difficult film not to find something to enjoy in. It feels as if it were made by a man in his 20s.
      Thanks Augusto (I know that's a place, but I'm going to call you by that name). Looking forward to knowing what other fllms are favorites!

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    4. Ken, I happen to think (er, getting back to the topic at hand in this post) Gosford Park is one of Altman's best. I saw it only once (a rental), and quite frankly wasn't expecting much (Short Cuts and the whole Altman "revival" of the 90s didn't exactly blow my skirt up), but was immediately taken in by the dreamy feel of the movie. It mixes just the right amount of Austen, Renoir and Ivory, with that tipically wicked, playful Altman twist. For instance, that scene in which Ivor Novello is playing at the piano is an eerie piece of sheer moviemaking poetry (think of the servants dancing), comparable to the Dance Macabre in La Régle du Jeu.

      (By the way, Augusto is my actual name (I mean, might also be a place, though I don't feel like checking it in Wikipedia right now). I suppose this neatly clarifies why do I rarely comment -- there's the whole language barrier, I'm barely acquainted to english at all)

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    5. Hello Augusto
      Your English is terrific! Oddly enough, as much as I love Altman's work, I wasn't much of a fan of "Short Cuts" either.
      Your observations about what appealed to you in "Gosford Park" are right on the mark. Until I read your comparisons to Austen, Renoir, and Ivory, I had forgotten how this film had initially reminded me of a much livelier Merchant Ivory product.
      The scene of the olks below enjoying Ivor Novello's music contrasted with the folks above is a great memory, and one i agree is moviemaking poetry. I've never seen Renoir's "The Rules of the Game", perhaps I should. Thanks again for the comment, and I appreciate even more your making the effort not being that well-acquainted with English. If you ever want to write in your native language, feel free. Google translate is terrific!

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  9. Another one I love. I remember working a dead end job in the scummier sharper end of the civil service when this came out and a guy I worked with who I was beginning to appreciate as a friend said to me 'have you seen this film coming out, what a cast list?! And Altman too!' It was then I knew we'd be mates for life, and indeed we still are despite both moving out of that job. A great intricate film about PEOPLE rather than PLOT, it's a sheer delight. Much better than Downright Shabby, as I like to call Fellowesoften inexplicable TV success.

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    1. Glad you like this one Mark. It IS quite a thrill to encounter a film about people. And it's such a great deal of fun, too. Have to laugh about your comment on "Downton Abbey"...I have a friend who loves in the UK and he too cannot stand the show and thinks we Yanks are unaccountably fond of this stuff. I'm such a fan of the show that it makes me smile to think of it referred to as "Downright Shabby". That's classic!

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