Gosford Park (2001) ***
Directed by Robert Altman; written by Julian Fellowes from an idea of Altman and Bob Balaban. Photography, Andrew Dunn. Editing, Tim Squyres. Production design, Stephen Altman. Music, Patrick Doyle. Producers, Robert Altman, Balaban, David Levy. Cast, alphabetically: Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Tom Hollander, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Camilla Rutherford, Maggie Smith, Geraldine Somerville, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sophie Thompson, Emily Watson, James Wilby, et al. A USA Films release. 137 minutes. R (sexual but non-graphic situations)
In England, the maverick--even protean--American Robert Altman has made a totally, convincingly British film. It adds him to the select, cum laude club of directors who go outside their native land and make genuine "foreign" movies. A few examples: Very American films by Frenchman Jean Renoir (e.g. "The Southerner", 1945 and more..) Ditto for Frenchman Rene Clair ("I Married a Witch", 1942, plus others). Amercian James Ivory with his Indian movies and his British ones ("Howards End," "Remains of the Day" etc.) The Taiwanese Ang Lee (an UIUC alumnus) gave us his British "Sense and Sensibility" and his American "The Ice Storm.." Other filmmakers too cane be added to this distinguised roster...
Altman's specialty (one of them) is to mix, match and un-match huge casts, overlapping dialogues, a zig-zag focus on his many characters, a wicked sense of humor... and so much else that it makes one watch his works overe and over again, with the viewers making new discoveries each time and enhancing their appreciation of each movie.
I have seen "Gosford Park" merely once. My three-star rating is cautious and conservative. I would not be at all surprised if on subsequent screenings the rating will change, upwards, that is.
The story is set in November 1932, when motley guests are invited to the manor of older, wealthy Sir William McCordle (Gambon) for a pheasant shoot. The visitors --relatives and non-relatives-- constitute a gallery of idiosyncrasies, problems, secrets (overt and covert), colorfulnesses, or else boringnesses. The same traits, but in novel ways, apply to the platoon of resident servants (there is at least a one-to-one ratio of domestics and "toffs") who have their own pecking order.
The manor is huge, but not an eye-popper inside. There may be chauffeured Rolls-Royce automobiles, and at least eight pieces of silver cutlery flanking expensive dinner plates, but the eye is not struck by the opulence or artistry of the surroundings. The rooms of the owners and the guests are not espcailly luxurious. They feel relatively cramped. And the servants' quarters are shabby.
Watching this movie you may immediately make a connetion with the TV series "Upstairs, Downstairs," rightly so. Except that there was warmhth and affection on TV and now there is true nastiness on the big screen. The other connection of this film is that patriarch of masters-servants movies, Jean Renoir's classic "The Rules of the Game" (1939.) The parallels are inescapable, from the hunt scenes to one of the guests, the uncouth American producer of Charlie Chan flicks. He is a vegetarian who requires special dishes, just as an industrialist's wfie (in "Rules") wants special items, even special salt.
"Gosford"'s makers are delightully movie-conscious, like the French New Wave directors. One of the guests is the popular (in the U.K.) film star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) who is also an accmplished pianist and singer. He entertains the guests with Noel Coward (or Coward-ish) songs. His latest movie is the thirller "The Lodger" that came out in 1932 and was a remake of Hitchcock's silent "The LOdger"of 1926. Novello starred in both. Since Hitch is not mentioned by name I suppose that references to that title are for the remke.
Here he brings to the party the Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban the film's co-idea man and co-producer) who is traveling with young Henry Denton, his young "valet" --but there's a lot more than this function.
The other main upstairs characters are his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) who despises her much-older husband. They are both promiscuous-with-no-class-distinctions. Then there's Constance, a Countess and a relative who is relatively impoversihed and depnds on Sir William's largesse. She is played by Maggie Smith with such ease and irony that she reminds me of that famous 19th century Polish actress who, in Paris, declaimed something in her native language (which no one knew in the audience) and had the Gallic public in tears. Turned out that she was reciting the French National Anthem. I'll skip the other notables except for Stephen Fry, a police inspector, who does a hilarious, bumbling number that in part recalls Inspector Clouseau's.
The downstairs people include Mary (Kelly Macdonald) the Countess's new maid and the single sweetheart (read, simpatico gal) in the cast. The class-conscious (i.e. among servants) array of majordomos, butlers, etc. amounts to a small Who's Who of Brit thespians when added to the upstairs characters: Alan Bates, Richard E.Grant, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, et al. Emily Watson, as Elsie, the head chambermaid, delivers a sensitive, iconoclastic, original performance. Impressive too is Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson, the dour, super-efficient supervisor of the staff. She reminded me at times of Mrs. Danvers, the strange housekeeper in Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940).
I wonder whether or not the script by Julian Fellowes (the actor who seems to be on his second foray as writer) had also been influenced by films of Max Ophuls, such as "La Ronde," "Madame de..." or "Lola Montes." since bothupstairs and downstairs "Gosford Park" goes around in circles or plot elements where A meets B who meets C and secrets are rvealed.
It would take pages as well as unwelcome disclosures to mention every role in this movie. Unwelcome because the film is also a sort of thriller, one that has many comparing it to an Agatha Christie detection novel. There is, however, a major difference between Christie books and this work. One can always reread pages and get a certain notion of the goings-on, but one cannot, in a cinema, rewind the movie now and then. This causes some puzzlement, something that was confirmed when I discusses certain scenes with friends who, among themseleves often had different perceptions of facts. Again, you need to see this movie once more at least to let the chips fall where they should.
On a single viewing (again!) there is, for experienced filmgoers that is, the possibility of getting distracted by so many familiar faces of perfomers who have aged considerably. Of performers who are cast against type, who have supporting roles and make short appearances. It all, however, adds up to a truly original ensemble. We are light-years away from Hollywood glamour in either sex, no, make this "any of the three sexes." See the movie and you'll find out what I mean.
The sets are perfect for the discreet but clear aura decay in the movie. So is the photography. As for the musical score, it is also first-class, original, discreet, and in contrast with the increasing ear-pounding of today's trends.