Film Commentary [1-21-02]
Agatha Christi’s Upstairs/Downstairs - - Gosford Park
Genre: Mystery/Drama
Grade = B+

Gosford Park is an all-star multiple storylined mystery film set in 1932 England. Sir William McCordle, a member of the aristocracy, holds a shooting/hunting weekend with a family and friends and friends of friends staying at his palatial estate. The film primarily focuses on Mary (Kelly Macdonald), the maid of Countess Constance of Trentham (Dame Maggie Smith - Death on the Nile, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). After the many guests are settled in upstairs, their servants get to work downstairs getting things ready.

The next hour and half of the film takes in the interaction of the guests and their servants during the long weekend until someone decides to bump-off Sir William, in the library, apparently with a knife. The bumbling Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry - Blackadder, Jeeves & Wooster) is called in to investigate.

Directed by Robert Altman (MASH, Nashville, Cookie's Fortune) and based on his ‘idea’ as the credits inform you. Although portrayed as a comedy in the TV ads, you will find most of the jokes few and far between. At least Altman has gotten over his annoying habit of having two or three conversations going at the same time which he started in MASH and went nuts with it in Nashville, which I consider to be one of the most overrated movies of the 1970s. Altman has made some films that will be remembered for a century, most notably MASH, but has also made some of the worst movies imaginable (i.e. Short Cuts, Dr. T and the Women). This one falls in-between.

While good but not great, the film can be best categorized as ‘interesting’. The film brilliantly explores the social structure and relations of the British class system in the early 20th century. The fine line between the classes and what happens when those lines are crossed. All the classes are represented, primarily by the lower class (blue collar) servants and the upper class aristocracy for whom they all work. The middle class is represented solely by a woman whose father owned a glove factory and is now married to a broke nare-do-well member of the upper class and nouveau riche Jewish-American Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, most recently in Ghost World) who came to the party to do research for his next Charlie Chan movie (Charlie Chan in London - but not set in London).

The murder doesn’t even take place until two-thirds of the way through the film. After the first half hour you spend your time wondering when the murder is going to happen. Then you start to guess when the murder will take place. Finally, it’s a relief when the guy gets it. The film even manages to cough up a suprise ending when Mary pieces together who the murderer is as well as a deeper scandal, involving servant-master sexual relations and their result. There are at least 30 speaking parts in this film and everyone’s character is well explored. Of this great cast, Dame Maggie Smith gives the best performance in the film with acid-tongued wit as the dowager Countess put-down artist who may the greatest snob ever portrayed on film. One of her most vibrant performances is the scene when a piano playing Hollywood actor (Jeremy Northam) starts playing the piano. When finishing the third song he's played everyone applauds. Smith steps in by shushing everyone at the bridge table and saying "Oh no! Don't applaud and encourage him anymore! He'll just keep playing!" This particular scene is also memorable as the staff members secretly creep up to the doors of the drawing room to listen to him play.

The cinematography was particularly vibrant along with the attention to the details of the clothes, cars, furniture and household items of the period that matched the character study and helped make the world of 1932 England come alive.

Other actors in the film include Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Richard E. Grant, Clive Owen and one of my all-time favorites Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius, Gladiator). Everybody hands in a great performance. One of the problems with the film is that there are so many characters and everyone dresses the same that it is sometimes hard to follow who is who and wants happening to whom. However, Altman manages to tie all the characters and subplots together in the end. With the films intricate plot and setting, this is a very interesting film that is worth a look.

Altman will probably be nominated for a best director Oscar like he has four times before, but hasn’t managed to win yet. He won’t for this film either unless at age 77 they decide they have to give him one before he croaks. This type of drama is not for everyone. Many will find it to be too slow paced. To be favorable to this type of film, you have to be able to used to this style of English film, such as Remains of the Day. You may want to check out Niel Simon’s comedic satire of old English and American mystery movies and novels Murder by Death which includes such big name stars as Alex Guinness, Peter Falk, Truman Capote, David Niven, James Cromwell, a great performance by Peter Sellers and Gosford Park’s Maggie Smith.

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