Running Time: 137 mins
With M.A.S.H, Pret a Porter and Nashville to his credit, director Robert Altman specialises in character-driven films. We know Altman is also a keen and insightful observer of human nature. Gosford Park is his first English film and it's among his best.
At their country estate Sir Michael McCordle (Michael Galion) and his independently aristocratic wife Lady Silvia (Kirstin Scott Thomas) host a weekend shooting party. This occasion brings together an eclectic group of friends, family, business contacts, a movie star and a Hollywood producer. Downstairs, almost everyone has a valet or a maid. It's poor form not to. During the weekend the host has the terribly bad luck to be poisoned and then stabbed! The local inspector of police (Stephen Fry) arrives to take charge of the investigation. Everyone is a suspect.
It would be a mistake to go to Gosford Park thinking it was a 'whodunit' in the Agatha Christi style. Seeing the murder occurs 118 minutes into this 137 minute film, it is apparent that Altman uses the murder as the opening moment in the final act. As is usual in his films the drama is a background to the people he wants to watch and Altman loves to observe people.
Twenty-one of Britain's leading actors have roles in Gosford Park. If ever there was an ensemble piece, this is it.
Maggie Smith plays the elderly Countess to perfection. Scott Thomas is viciously spiteful and terribly bored as Sylvia. Helen Mirren is the aloof Head housekeeper who has to hold the household and herself together. Derek Jacobi is the camp valet to the Host, who is so well played by Michael Gambon that by the end of the film we can see why no one liked him. This
list of fine performances could go on.
This period drama is meticulous in its detail, sumptuous to look at and a joy to the eye.
If anything, Altman is a bit too indulgent in setting up all the characters and giving us their motivations for the murder. As a result Gosford Park lags in the middle. The other jarring note is Stephen Fry whose late appearance ushers in a keystone cops theme which is not very funny or welcome. When, in every sense, the final act comes the pace picks up and
the emotions kick in for a moving resolution. Only the most astute viewer will pick who did it.
Some of the coarse language could offend some viewers and the level of unhappiness of nearly everyone upstairs and down, tells us that having too much of anything can be as bad as not having nearly enough.
Richard Leonard SJ