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Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Gosford Park - 2001

Feb 23, 2017



    Adapting Robert Altmans trademark, multi-character, freeform narrative style to the formalized structure of a classicAgatha Christie murder mystery is such an inspired concept, Im rather surprised it took until nearly the end ofAltmans 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), thepsychological thriller (Images), and satire (The Player); a good, old-fashioned whodunit was just about the onlygenre 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 first discovering him in the early 1970s. But following therather (for me) dismal back-to-back entries of Cookies Fortune (1999) and Dr. T and the Women (2000), I reallythought Altman had gone the way of that other '70s favorite, Peter Bogdanovich; i.e., dried-up creatively, his bestwork behind him. I was wrong. Like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman provedhimself to be one of those directors capable of delivering surprisingly fresh and innovative work well into theirseventies. Indeed, at the ripe old age of 75, Altmans Gosford Park revealed the director in his finest form since 3Women (1977), delivering not only one of his most solid and fully realized films, but his biggest boxoffice hit sinceM.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 screenwriter JulianFellowes combined to create a marvelously layered re-creation of a traditional English-style crime mystery with adecidedly Altman-esque twist. The twist being that the mysterya 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 andguests, but rather, from the perspective of the servant class, below stairs. Its a simple yet ingenious device allowingfor the filmmakers to cleverly intermingle the crosscutting stories of some 35 characters while making shrewdobservations on everything from the class system, changing times, sexual mores, social conventions, personalrelationships, 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 orsomething theyre after, Altmans legendary virtuosity behind the camera serves the misleadingly conventional setupexceptionally well. In fact, not since Nashville has Altmans celebrated bag of tricks (overlapping dialogue,peripheral activity, cross-cutting storylines, ensemble cast of characters harboring secrets) seemed so organic tothe material. Ostensibly hemmed in by the rigid constraints of the religiously adhered-to rules of the British socialclass structure, Altman actually comes off as more liberated than ever. Theres something in Julian Fellowes(Downton Abbey) surprisingly witty, culturally-perceptive script that presses most of Robert Altmans best qualities tothe forefront (I cant think of a single director capable of getting us to keep track of, let alone care about, so manycharacters), while suppressing a great many of his weaknesses (the English locale spares us Altmans fondness forthe 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 neverthelesssorry to see come to an end (a problem happily remedied by the DVD which contains loads of deleted scenes!). In aworld where I find myself feeling grateful if the film I'm watching at least chooses to rely on smart clichs instead ofstupid ones; Gosford Park is an endangered species: a film that feels like it's shedding the rote and predictable withthe introduction of each new character. Somehow, while still adhering to the genre conventions of an Agatha Christiecrime drama (or, as is referenced in the film itself, a Charlie Chan thriller) Gosford Park manages to confoundexpectations. The comedy is sharp, the drama is well-played and frequently moving, the characters are dimensional,the mystery element engrossing, and its subthemes on class distinctions are poignant and eye-opening.Of course, the biggest surprise of all is that after all these years, Altman is in the best form of his career.

    A particular favorite of mine is Camilla Rutherford as Isabel McCordle. She andMabel Nesbitt are characters with story arcs I'd describe as classically Altman-


    WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILMPerhaps the right word here is grateful. What Im grateful for about Gosford Park is the depth of its intricacy. It's anentertaining film that breezes along, providing both character-based humor and genuinely affecting dramaticmoments, yet Gosford Park has a great deal more on its mind than just providing a solid mystery and a houseful ofsuspects. It's a very smart, observant look at the kinds of surface behaviors and rituals that people engage in orderto mask who and what they really are. And all this is layered atop a social satire and comedy of manners contrastingself-imposed hierarchies of status against those that are socially-imposed. It's a film just brilliant in it's complexity,chiefly because all of these layers play out subtly beneath an outrageously entertaining mystery that is fun to watchin and of itself.From every conceivable angle Gosford Park is a marvel of logistics. So many stories to tell, so many characters, somuch information to impart...and yet, the film feels light and effortless. That Altman is able to deliver to us so manyinteresting characters in so brief a time is a skill he has demonstrated several times before; his being able to do sowhile simultaneously enlightening us as to the myriad duties and rituals that go into the running of an English manorhouse is something else again.


  • Gosford Park is a great film for repeat viewings. It's staggering the amount ofsubtle 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 pieces provided. Its great not to have everythingspelled out for you, or to have a camera continually directing your gaze towards where you should be looking andwhy. Gosford Park assumes an alertness from its audience and rewards you with a story that pays off as terribly