Gosford Park (2001)

Rated R for some language and brief sexuality.

Starring Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson.
Directed by Robert Altman.
Written by Julian Fellowes.
Distributed by USA Films.
137 minutes.

Photo ©USA Films. All rights reserved.

Watch the People

Watching Gosford Park is an observational experience. With so many people involved and so many things going on in the story, it's impossible to soak it all in during one sitting. Therefore, the best thing to do is to relax and enjoy the intriguing little details that are revealed about each of the character's lives. Don't worry about missing something -- if you enjoyed the show the first time, you'll find yourself wanting to sit through it a second time for the chance to pay attention to every little thing.

Disguised as a murder mystery, Gosford Park is actually a humorous study of class-divided characters. The outer shape of the story is the classic British mystery set-up -- numerous guests are invited to a large estate for a weekend party, then somebody winds up dead and there are many suspects to choose from. However, the whodunnit aspect is not the meat of the movie. It is instead the characters themselves and their personal affairs, hang-ups, and peculiarities that make the film interesting to watch.

The cast is a literal party of famous British actors and actresses, among them Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Some Americans, like Ryan Phillippe and Bob Balaban, sneak in there too. They all play distinct characters, and the film moves quickly from conversation to conversation, interaction to interaction, from one person speaking with another to that person being interrupted in order to speak with someone else. Overall, more than 30 people, comprised of various lords and ladies and their personal servants, occupy and overrun the estate known as Gosford Park for the stretch of a few days. It's easy to get lost among the characters, but getting to know them is most of the fun. The actors and actresses play their roles so naturally it's as if director Robert Altman just told each of them who they played and let them all start conversing spontaneously. That he is able to make weaving in and out of each conversation feel so seamless shows what a great job he accomplished.

The overall picture serves as a critique of the system of class division, seen here in the setting of 1932. The noble men and women sleep in the quarters on the upper floors, while their personal servants sleep with Gosford Park's butler, cooks, and maids on the lower floor, where the kitchen and laundry rooms are. However, the two sets of people are not so terribly different -- both are inclined to gossip amongst themselves, both snipe at unwelcome members of their own class, and both have members who harbor secrets and shames. A class war isn't going on here because most of the servants have accepted their positions and willingly serve their masters, but the movie does question the social system's validity. Most of the questioning comes directly from Lady Trentham's maid (Kelly Macdonald), who's new to her position and is adjusting slowly to being "broken in," and the American Mr. Weissman's valet (Phillippe), who doesn't seem to be familiar at all with what is and isn't considered proper. The events and conversations lead the audience to beg the question of why such a system ever had to exist in the first place. Clearly these are all humans with similar needs, made different only through upbringing and what is expected of them from society. Yet for a nobleman to speak to a servant as if he were less than human was commonly accepted in those times, and, through the film, we observe this to be quite sad.

If I had any complaint about this movie, it would be that more wasn't actually done with the murder mystery. The deed is done about halfway through the movie, and sure enough a bumbling detective comes in to question everyone. However, one of the characters gets to find out whodunnit without a customary gather-the-suspects-for-the-revelation scene. This movie is a lot of fun because of the characters we watch, but murder mysteries are also fun in their own right, and to further develop that side of it would have been a treat.

Rating: 8/10

©Jeffrey Chen, Jan. 6, 2002