Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Julian Fellowes, based on an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban
Starring: Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Phillippe, Richard E Grant
Duration: 131 mins
BBFC Certification: 15
Director Robert Altman (MASH, Nashville) is well known for his ambitious multi-plot and multi-character pieces that pay close attention to social situation and observation and Gosford Park is no exception. Although some of Altman’s films may not have successfully managed to pull off such elaborate narrative, Gosford Park is a perfect mix, helped significantly by its vast and talented pool of British acting royalty.
A period piece, set in the 1930s, Gosford Park is a combination of a soap opera look at the lives of its characters, like that of Upstairs, Downstairs and the classic British genre of Whodunnit by Agatha Christie, (minus the interfering little old lady). But Gosford Park is much more than a typical murder mystery. In fact, the murder is just the passageway down which a series of doors lead to a myriad of places. Altman uses the murder as a mechanism in which to break down his characters and dissect the class system, pointing out its flaws. Ultimately, we are not witnessing a murder but the breakdown of a defunct class system.
In true Altman style the film focusses on the intertwined lives of its characters. Although initially introduced to the aristocracy attending the country house shooting party, we are soon introduced to the attending servants, with equal weight given to the lives of both upstairs and downstairs, both intrinsic to society of the time. However, the hierarchy of the two classes is further broken down as we delve into the snobbery, greed and eccentricity of the upper classes and the perhaps unexpected pecking order amongst the servants. The film breaks down the class system almost seamlessly as we find out more and more details about the lives of the characters and how they interconnect.
With so much emphasis placed on the vast amount of characters within the film, it is not surprising that Altman chose to cast such prestigious actors. With such an all-star cast it is difficult to separate out actors of note, but in my opinion, Maggie Smith surpasses herself as the snooty Constance, Countess of Trentham, with her dry sarcastic humour, and my favourite is undoubtedly Stephen Fry as the bumbling British Inspector Thompson who dismisses all possible clues that might in fact lead to apprehension of the suspect. I also liked Jeremy Northam’s characterisation of Ivor Novello, the Hollywood star. His ‘Noel Coward’ style musical renditions were particularly amusing when paired with Maggie Smith’s beautifully executed sarcastic comments as Constance.
Julian Fellows script, based on an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban, is exceptionally well written. Each and every character in this film brings with it a different slant on 1930s society, with a realism that allows the audience to fully immerse in the era. Despite the long list of characters, Fellowes still manages to create motive to kill in almost all of them, a huge task in itself. Throughout the film, the script allows subtle wit and humour to ooze from its characters, giving real depth, further realising that this is indeed a film about society and human habits and not just a murder mystery.
The film opens with shot after shot of each guest arriving for a weekend hunting party, hosted by the pompous Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his younger, beautiful wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). At first it is a little confusing, so many characters introduced in such a short space of time. But as time goes on and more and more guests arrive, we begin to get a better picture of who is who and their selfish motives for convening together.
We meet Sir William’s sister Constance, Countess of Trentham, completely financially dependent on an allowance controlled by her brother, Lady Sylvia’s sister Louisa (Geraldine Sommerville) who like her sister had to marry for money and her husband Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander), all aristocrats with a title but little money. Then there are the controversial men of money, seen to soil and ruin the old aristocratic elite; Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) a Hollywood Star and Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) a gay Hollywood director.
As more guests arrive, so do more servants. We are introduced to members of the existing household, such as the housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) whose life is only to serve, butler Jennings (Alan Bates) distinctly happy with his place in the social system, the head cook Mrs Croft (Eileen Atkins) harbouring many regrets and the maid Elsie (Emily Watson) perhaps the only true-hearted and most likeable of all the characters. Further servants attending to the needs of their masters arrive including the inquisitive Mary, Constance’s maid who eventually joins all the pieces of the jigsaw together to solve the crime.
Throughout the build-up to the murder, scenes are included to arouse suspicion. Close-ups of bottles of poison on shelves, a scene where one of the maids is counting the knives repeatedly and of course there is one missing. By the time the murder takes place, as an audience we have already got a clear picture in our mind of who might have committed the murder and their motives. And then the twist – not one murderer but two.
Gosford Park is a brilliant ensemble of the cream of British actors, brought together on equal footing in a script that really encapsulates life and times in the 1930s. Although a little confusing and perhaps slow at the beginning, it is worth watching to the end. However, be warned, the emphasis of this movie is not a spine-chilling murder mystery but a deeper look at society’s class system.
This brand new 2K restoration from a 4k scan is available as a special edition Blu-ray released by Arrow Academy and includes the following extras:
- Brand new 2K restoration from a 4K scan, carried out by Arrow films exclusively for this release, supervised and approved by director of photography Andrew Dunn
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Audio commentary by director Robert Altman, production designer Stephen Altman and producer David Levy
- Audio commentary by writer-producer Julian Fellowes
- Brand-new audio commentary by critics Geoff Andrew and David Thompson(author of Altman on Altman)
- Introduction by critic Geoff Andrew
- Brand new cast and crew interviews recorded exclusively for this release
- The Making of Gosford Park archive featurette
- Keeping Gosford Park Authentic archive featurette
- Q&A Session with Altman and the cast
- Fifteen deleted scenes with optional Altman commentary
- Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin