As genres go, the British comedy of manners is about as tired as they come.
Nonetheless, that has not stopped Robert Altman, the iconoclastic director of
such varied films as M*A*S*H and The Player, from attempting to
bring his own American insights to the British class structures of old in
Gosford Park. The directorís first foray into Merchant-Ivory territory,
Gosford Park is satisfying entertainment but little more; though noticeably
different in style, the film ultimately suffers from the same predictable storylines
and characters that have now become regularly associated with this type of
Regardless of how different this project may seem from his previous films,
Altman still manages to bring his characteristic style to the new setting: the
ensemble of actors is large, the dialogue is quick and often overlapping, and the
whole story is told with the underlying humor and casualness that has become
Altmanís trademark. This time, however, the story is set in 1930s England and
deals with a shooting party held at the titular estate of Sir William McCordle
(Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristen Scott Thomas). Invited to
the party are a host of wealthy and seemingly important characters, ranging from
the old and caustic Aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) to the movie star Ivan
Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his guest Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), an
American film producer.
As if dealing with only one set of characters was not challenging enough, the
film aims to compare the luxurious lives of the guests at Gosford Park with those
of the estateís servants, and about equal time is spent ìdownstairsî in the
servantsí universe as it is ìupstairsî with the guests of the party. Amongst the
servants, the butler Jennings (Alan Bates) lords over the male staff, while Mrs.
Wilson (Helen Mirren) is in charge of the women.
The arrival of visitors at Gosford Park means visiting servants also, and the help
staff must therefore get used to the presence of Mr. Weissmanís servant (Ryan
Philippe) and the mysterious Robert Parks (Clive Owen), a valet for one of the
guests. I could go on describing characters (including those played by Emily
Watson and Sir Derek Jacobi), but thereís not enough space in any review to go
through all the storyís secrets and subplots. Suffice it to say that Altman is
expecting the audience to pay close attention throughout this film.
And for much of the film, that close attention is richly deserved. The script by
Julian Fellowes is for the most part sharply observed and energetic; the gossip
that pervades the halls of both the guests and servantsí quarters is genuinely
interesting. It is, after all, the conflict between the classes that is meant to be at
the center of Gosford Park, and Altman and Fellowes richly describe the
differences and similarities between the servants and their wealthy counterparts.
But despite the extremely large cast of characters, what is disappointing about
Gosford Park is how familiar the whole thing seems; Coward, Dickens,
and Austen have introduced many of these characters and their personal stories
before and did a much better job of it.
This becomes especially evident once the film becomes devoted to solving the
murder of Sir William, who is killed while sitting alone in his gunroom. This
allows for the introduction of a bumbling inspector (Stephen Fry) who must
question both the guests and the servants and naturally create a great amount
of tension among the characters, many of whom have skeletons in their closets.
This tired and predictable plot device begins what is a definite decrease in the
energy and inventiveness of the script, and the film ultimately must limp toward
its conventional conclusion.
Which is not to say that the film does not have many merits: the cast is
universally excellent, as is the costume design and much of the camera work.
The grandeur of Gosford Park is well realized, and there is no doubt Altman has
captured the materialism and inequality that marked the British class structures
of the early 20th century. In fact, the greatest problem with Gosford Park
is that it is a little too like its subjects: attractive upon first view, but ultimately
rather dull and shallow.
Gosford Park opens Dec. 26.