Thursday, 4 May 2006
Gosford Park, by director Robert Altman, pieces together a period ensemble for which he is famous (think Short Cuts or Pret-a-Porter). This one is set in an English mansion during a shooting weekend in autumn in 1932. Michael Gambon and Kristen Scott Thomas play host to a number of guests that descend on their house for the weekend with their personal maids or valets in tow. This allows us to see life both above and below the stairs as each strata of society within the house abides by its own rules, traditions and formalities.
And if this is all it was then it might be an interesting if somewhat bland historical drama in the style of A Room With a View [which I’m not saying is bland only that it is primarily an historical drama] or some such. It is however just the vehicle for Altman to wickedly hack into the class system and take a few backhanders at Hollywood on the way.
The upstairs group is well serviced by actors such as Jeremy Northam, Maggie Smith and Charles Dance while the servants, cooks and valets are played with a splendid array of equally competing interests and allegiances by Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillipe, Richard E Grant, Derek Jacobi and Helen Mirren. No one actor hogs the screen and all have a story to tell (you can just see Maggie Smith making the most of every moment and every line she has).
When the head of the house, Gambon, finally ends up with a knife in the chest, the film moves to send up all those manor house detective stories a la Agatha Christie by sending an inept police inspector to investigate, played with just the right level of levity by Stephen Fry.
By leaving the actual story (that of the murder and the reasons why) until well after half-way allows Altman time to develop his characters and gives us time as viewers to understand the routine of the house and the petty jealousies and rivalries that exist between the characters. Gosford Park is in truth far more concerned with the characters and how they fit into their role than it ever is regarding the story line.
Roger Ebert describes Gosford Park as a “joyous and audacious achievement” and is a film that I enjoyed immensely.