Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Clive Owen, Michael Gambon
Spoilers Within: No
Robert Altman’s career is often attributed to his propensity for small, subversive stories told with tremendous ensembles and a satirical bite: from Nashville‘s delve into the political and musical landscape of 1970s Tennessee, to Short Cuts‘ ambitious tale of interconnecting Los Angeles suburbanites. Some of his most noted (and his longest) projects have expertly dealt with this balancing act of interwoven stories and social parody, with each articulately converging into a satisfying end: Gosford Park – the class-divide-satire-come-murder-mystery – is no exception.
Opening on a typically rainy British afternoon at an English Country House (the titular Gosford Park), we’re attentively introduced to the massive cast of characters (some 30+ people above and below); succinctly enough to keep a swift, naturalistic pace, and thorough enough to get an impression of their personalities and their status within the multi-storied mansion. There’s the upstairs, full of grand hallways, luxurious bedrooms and decadent suites for Lady Trentham (Kristen-Scott Thomas) and Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) to entertain their numerous guests, then there’s the servants quarters – the downstairs – which is further divided by a strict social hierarchy, the head of which is lead housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren). As a study of classism and the dependency on the serfdom of others it’s can hardly be called subtle, but as a realistic depiction of the charades of aristocracy, it’s written – and performed – to perfection.
There’s a truly wonderful fluency to both Julian Fellows’ script and the corridors of the house: each intelligently complements the other as the visitors and the help from both floors entwine, their secretive pasts are revealed with indirect hints and exclusive traits. Conversation between two or more characters bleeds eloquently into another as Altman’s camera navigates the narrow passages and spacious hallways as the same time navigating the specifics of class structure. Thanks to the opening walk-and-talk introductions, the floorplan is almost immediately apparent and the characters’ idiosyncrasies are easily identifiable, which thankfully means that there is less time spent wondering who and what is taking place in which wing of the estate, and more time spent examining the sharp-witted and cruelly funny insults for clues to the impending murder.
As the film began its evolution into a whodunnit, it shifted intrigue from the staggering rudeness of the wealthy to the distrust among their ranks: suspicions and Agatha Christie-style groundwork is slowly slotted together, leading to revelations of cross-generational familial sorrow downstairs, and the revoking of business funding and threat of bankruptcy upstairs. Each character has some degree of motive to the crime, and each have their own priorities laid out before them, but as with mysteries of this style it’s usually down to just one to have more of a grudge than the rest. Personally, I much preferred the lead up to the crime than the aftermath. That’s not to say that the investigation (led by Inspector Thomas, played in a quintessentially Stephen Fry way by Stephen Fry) wasn’t of interest, but the outcome felt entirely beside the point. It wasn’t until the final minutes that my reaction was echoed by Insp. Thomas’s total indifference to solving the crime, but if Altman and Bob Balaban’s (who also stars as the American film producer Morris Weissman) screenplay ideas didn’t include such an abundant cast, then perhaps the formation of the puzzle would have been even less interesting.
Gosford Park is a great period drama, with a fascinating attention to physical details, costume and dialogue, as well as the accurate – yet fully satirical – portrayals of class divisions, with across-the-board brilliance from the entire cast. The ending may seem a little abrupt – again, reiterated by Insp. Thomas – but considering the majority is spent on establishing characters and motive, that’s less a criticism than it is a note on how joyfully humorous the preparatory hour was. Regardless of a quick resolution, and the offhand solving of the assassination of the affluent, Robert Altman’s look into the intersecting though societally separate workings of an English manor is a keenly playful and constantly engaging piece of period cinema.