Gosford Park (2001)

*. The theatrical release poster for Gosford Park (or at least the best known one, and the one that’s reproduced on the DVD box cover) is basically just a list of names. Because this is a Robert Altman film with an ensemble cast and the names, including Altman’s, are what’s important.
*. I mean the names of the stars. Even right after rewatching this film I couldn’t have told you the name of a single character in the film aside from Mary (Kelly Macdonald). As you watch Gosford Park you just fall into the habit of identifying the character as the star. “Oh, there’s Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Richard Grant,” etc. This is how Altman identifies them throughout the DVD commentary. I don’t think he ever mentions a character’s name. He’ll just say “Maggie Smith’s character,” if he has to.
*. Does this identification-by-star distract us from the characters they’re playing? Or does it provide some assistance in such a crowded house? There may also be a connection in this to the way the below-stairs cast are identified not by their names but by the last names of their lords and ladies. Their names, at least, don’t mean very much anyway (until we get to the final reveal). Even the police inspector is left nameless throughout several attempts at introduction because nobody really cares what he’s called. He’s just the hired help that had to be brought in to clean up a mess. Later they won’t even bother to get his name right, but it doesn’t matter.
*. Is there too much going on, especially given Altman’s penchant for not making clear what’s important in terms of the plot? Perhaps there is, in the sense that much of what’s going on is irrelevant. Big chunks of the set-up escaped me entirely. How many people on a first viewing even get that there are three sisters? I know I didn’t. And even on re-watches I’m still lost as to what how Isobel was being blackmailed. Only the commentary by writer Julian Fellowes (which is more informative than the one with Altman, if you have to choose) helped sort some of it out for me.

*. Altman wanted to make a movie that people would want to see twice. But a movie they’d have to see twice? Or three times? Because a great deal of it continues to elude me.
*. The first time I saw Gosford Park I didn’t know what to think of it. I still don’t. The inspiration for it was Altman’s desire to do an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, which later morphed into an examination of class issues, to the point where the mystery became incidental. In fact, there is little mystery involved, in the sense of red herrings and clues to be followed. At the end we simply find out what happened, and nobody muchcares. The police investigation, led by the bumbling Stephen Fry, doesn’t solve the crime, in part because, as with the rest of Gosford Park society, Fry’s assistant is the only one capable of getting anything done.
*. So again we have what I think is Altman’s great theme: what is important? Not who killed Michael Gambon (Sir William Something-or-other), but rather how these people relate to one another, how such a world works. Note how the movie ends with the repetition of the line about what use testifying to some seemingly important truth could possibly serve. Why, none whatsoever. What happened at Gosford Park is going to stay in Gosford Park. But if those walls could talk . . .
*. Well, if they could talk they’d have stories to tell,. But would they talk? And if they talked, would anyone notice? I like how Fellowes puts it when describing the restrained speech patterns of this world: “nothing should be talked of as though it is tremendously important.” Again, a perfect fit for Altman’s indirect style, his tonal camouflage. Then there are scenes that are silent. What does Mrs. Wilson say to Parks after he’s told to take the dog out of the kitchen? Anything important? I mean, there is a hint earlier that he knows who she is.
*. That “not saying anything as though it’s important” has its apotheosis in Mirren’s line at the end: “I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.” You have to listen hard to get the emotion behind that. And yet Fellowes calls it “the key line of the film” and Mirren actually didn’t want to say it, thinking it was unnecessary. I think her instincts were right, but that might have been hard for a writer to understand.

*. The British aristocracy between the wars. But is there any sense here of that “dancing on the volcano” feeling Renoir would be inspired by in Rules of Game? I don’t get any of that, though some have claimed it’s here.
*. I wonder what the attraction is for this period. I like a country-house mysteries as much as the next person, but the whole Upstairs, Downstairs thing never appealed to me. It’s obviously a draw, however. Fellowes would go on to create the popular Downton Abbey series, which was originally imagined as a spin-off of this property. Do we miss a world of such rigid class distinctions and social rules? That sense of there being an absolute, unchanging order? Or do we find it not that far distant from our own time and place, and getting closer to us every day? Does it feel especially relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
*. The examination of the class angle is well done, but I also wondered at the point of it. Listening to Fellowes, I thought it was just something like we get in The Remains of the Day, about how a class system this rigid shapes more than just behaviour. One’s job becomes one’s life, a routine that you never stop to question. One simply does one’s duty, not caring if it’s right or wrong or what effect it might have on you.
*. But none of this seems that fresh or new. David Ansen: “Gosford is fine, well-groomed entertainment, but the road it takes has already been well paved.” A comedy about English snobbishness and class exploitation? Well, sure. But it is put across very well. Altman is a perfect fit for the comedy of manners and understatement. One of the pleasures of repeated viewings is picking up many lines that you can easily miss the first time. The stars are all present and accounted for, but also nearly invisible. I almost missed Derek Jacobi entirely (his biggest scenes were actually cut).
*. For all the attention to detail I have to take some marks off for authenticity (as hesitant as I am at doing so given Fellowes’ understanding of this world). Elsie’s explosion at dinner, which gets her fired, seemed incredible to me. There’s no way that would have happened, especially with so little provocation. Also, the Ryan Phillippe character seemed a real stretch and I think the movie would have been better without him. But maybe I just don’t like Ryan Phillippe. Would Jude Law (originally cast for the part) have been better? Maybe. Denton, however, is a creepy jerk. I do like how he’s shown to be a predator and not another honest Yankee in a corrupt court. This isn’t a movie with a lot of heroes, upstairs or down.

*. I return to my saying I’m not sure what to think of Gosford Park. It’s a movie to be appreciated and enjoyed, but not really loved or excited by. The cast is sterling, with Macdonald managing to more than hold her own playing against any of the vets. Over two hours long, but surprisingly light on its feet, without having any moments that drag. A movie filled with funny bits that won’t make you laugh out loud but will raise plenty of smiles. I love Countess Trentham telling Weissman that none of the people at the party will ever see the movie he’s planning to make (which is Charlie Chan in London). Or the call for the head butler Jennings upon discovering the body. Good old Jennings. He’ll fix this up!
*. A triumph then, and a great movie, of a sort. Not a personal favourite, though it is growing on me, and I realize it’s a movie that’s not trying to get you to like it. Just as we don’t like the people in it, even though, for some reason, their very dysfunctionality and wickedness is not just comic but comforting. I guess ultimately it’s the appeal of the cozy, which is no less appealing when someone gets hurt.

14 thoughts on “Gosford Park (2001)

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    Been thinking of watching this, but always held off, partly due to my fear of Altman, and also my dislike of period pieces with rich white people stamping down on poor white servants. At the end of the day, I don’t think I’m going to really care if some old man was murdered. But it does have Bob Balaban, in it, right? And he’s a plus in everything.

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, Balaban is one of the lighter comic elements and he’s fun. I find this is one that grows on you after a while. I didn’t really love it the first time I saw it but I like it more now.

  2. tensecondsfromnow

    Any good kills in this? Did you watch it as part of your Charlie Chan season?

    I remember they showed a clip from this as the Oscars, featuring Are You Being Served? star Frank Thornton, then cut to Sean Penn watching the screen. I hope it inspired Penn to watch every frame of Are You Being Served? and revel in the endless supply of pussy jokes.


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