Directed by Robert Altman
Review by Evelyn Gildrie-Voyles <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The opening credits of Gosford Park state that this movie was written by Julian Fellowes and based on an idea of Robert Altman. Just one? I'd say this large and unwieldy film was based on several ideas ranging from the rather overdone "man is killed in house full of suspects" idea (Clue anyone?), through the socially interesting question of what a life of being served or being a servant does to one's soul, and ends with the idea: what if someone was murdered and nobody cared?
Altman's ideas and Fellowes' characters are so wonderful, complicated and delightful that they deserve a BBC mini-series; they are awfully cramped in a 2½ hour movie.
The film portrays life both above (guests and aristocratic owners) and below (servants) the stairs in a British country house in the early 1930's. Gruff, unlovable, and basically unloved patriarch, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), invites a host of relatives and dependents to his home for a weekend of game hunting. The guests all bring their servants, which leads to a house full of people who either don't know each other or don't like each other very much. There is much wry British bitchiness and someone dies.
Everyone in the huge cast is very good although most of them are woefully underused, which is understandable because there are so many of them. Kelly Macdonald (Two Family House) as Mary Macreachran (the maid of the Countess of Trentham, played by Maggie Smith) is the closest thing the film has to a main character, and she is quite earnest, sweet, and charming although all she does is serve as the audience's eyes as she observes the events that unfold over the weekend. Emily Watson, who plays the McCordle's maid, is marvelous in an easy, understated way and approaches having a rounded character.
Most of the other characters are just a bundle of character traits rather than full people. Maggie Smith is gleefully nasty as the Countess and Bob Balaban as the American film producer would steal the film if he wasn't pushed to the side by the sheer number of characters and side relationships. I understand that one of the points of the film is for the house to be blindingly crowded, but it does make for a rather muddled film. There isn't time to fully develop anything. The ending feels particularly hurried and smushed together.
The film is well worth renting -- great performances, funny writing, beautiful costumes by Jenny Beavan and a hilarious abundance of poison, knives and murder suspects. There is simply no reason to see this in the movie theatre and really no reason for it to be a movie. It would have faired much better as a mini-series, but American TV doesn't seem to produce mini-series unless they're about the 60's or the scandal of the week.
I recommend waiting until Gosford Park comes out on video then you can rewind and catch all the different characters and motivations that you might miss on the first viewing.
For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Gosford Park (2001)
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings