In retrospect, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) seems like a dry run for Julian Fellowes’ BBC zeitgeist, Downton Abbey (2010-2016); the assorted array of stuffy and nimble-minded English aristocrats, gathered for an exclusive hunting party at a decaying country estate, thematically delicious as a refreshed retread of the ole ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ ilk; the cast headlined by some heavy hitters including Maggie Smith, Charles Dance, Kristen Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen and Emily Watson (to name but a handful). Lampooning England’s idle rich has become something of a habit with Dame Maggie Smith, one of the most formidable actresses of her generation and an enduring pop icon on both sides of the Atlantic. Gosford Park is a throwback to the days when complexity in solid storytelling reigned supreme as a main staple in an industry more presently drowning in its ever-increasing tedium with digital effects. Gosford Park ought to have been the Best Picture of 2001; the Oscar instead going to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It’s hard to argue with either choice actually, as Scott wisely chose to focus his grand Roman epic on the intimacy of its characters too. Yet, Gosford Park is a more subdued experience; Altman’s richly textured mélange of merriment and mirth luxuriating in his penchant for overlapping dialogue. You really have to pay attention to the machinations unfolding in Gosford Park. Altman illustrates much but never just gives anything away. Here is a movie that commands our attention, not only for a basic understanding of the plot – expertly scripted by Fellowes – but equally for its electric exchanges of dialogue that crackle and stir the admiration for those bygone days of courtly and imperishably British melodrama.
Altman’s final film is both a testament to his principles as a film maker and a deeply rewarding tapestry of magnificent performances. The landscape is populated with a thrilling assortment of compelling manipulators, each fully realized in their hidden agendas before the final fade out. There’s so much going on, in fact, that one trip to Gosford Park is not nearly enough to absorb it all with the latitude of appreciation it deserves. Initially based on nothing more than an idea by Altman and producer/co-star, Bob Balaban, the final screenplay by Julian Fellowes teems with darkly comedic insincerity. On the surface, the plot is a standard ‘who done it?’ of the Agatha Christie ilk. However, Fellowes’ clever interpretation of this material allows for a more shrewd investigation of England’s caste system and an even more fascinating glimpse into the last gasp of its establishment, chiefly interpreted from the perspectives of its servant class. As example: it is very telling the victim in this clever narrative is of the aristocracy, snuffed out by someone from its lowest strata; the crime destined to go unpunished because the middle tier Scotland Yard inspector brought in to investigate the homicide is a bumbling idiot of the ole Sherlock Holmes/Inspector Lestrade stripe. Even more telling is the film’s finale; the grand ‘lady’ and remorseless widow of the maison, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), electing to shutter the property for a gayer life in London.
Gosford Park reaches all the way back to England’s fading era of gentility like a fragrant – if dying – last rose of summer; with its emphasis on the perpetually rain-soaked agrarian landscape and that daft bunch of boobies who lack a farmer’s appreciation for the land and, as such, have yet to realize their cultured lives are about to change forever; and not in a way as to favor their class for future generations. Julian Fellowes’ screenplay is mercilessly cynical, yet full of bright pockets of comedy, exercising its verve for this seemingly effortless blend of history, drama and politics. A lesser writer would have merely concentrated on the murder and its inevitable denouement. To be sure, the cliffhanger revelation as to ‘who’ actually done it – and (more intriguingly) why – is as potent and shocking as one might expect. But it isn’t entirely the focus of this story.
Nor do all of the plot entanglements introduced throughout hang on its fitting conclusion. That’s a mercy too; because like Fellowes, Robert Altman is far more interested in people than plot. Surely, we need the latter to make any good movie click as it should. But Altman understands the rudimentary A,B,C’s of plot alone does not necessarily make for a compelling story; nor does it suggest the intricacies of life. Instead, Altman pawns off these duties on his production designer, Steven Altman and cinematographer, Andrew Dunn; the mood established, eerily hinting of the inevitable moth-balling of this ancient civilization where manners dictate action and action alone seems straightjacketed by the indecisively haughty and exclusive. Gosford Park is, above all else, a study of the character of English society – the high, as well as low, born. Perhaps owing to his understanding American audiences need a little more ‘oomph’ to sweeten this deal, Altman and Fellowes interject a murder into these proceedings.
Yet, if anything, their setup to the actual killing is far more satisfying; particularly the burgeoning friendship between sly upstairs maid, Elsie (having an affair with the lord of the manor, Sir William McCordle) and naïve visiting lady’s maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly MacDonald), who becomes privy to all sorts of eye-opening experiences during her brief stay. These include an unrequited affection for the would-be murderer; Robert Parks (Clive Owen) – if only his mother, self-professed ‘perfect servant’ and head house keeper, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) had not beat her estranged son to his purpose by poisoning McCordle’s scotch. Hence, the old wily bugger was already dead by the time Parks managed to plunge his stolen kitchen knife into the cadaver. The motivations behind this dastardly revenge bear more consideration. Altman delivers the goods. Yet, he quietly passes over these particulars, his ingenious disregard for the more dramatic ‘big reveal’ allowing the audience to piece together the more subversively hidden tragic nuggets that will ultimately generate fruitful discussion and greater satisfaction once the houselights have come up.
Gosford Park begins with Lady Constance Trentham’s (Maggie Smith) antiquated preparations for attending a lavish weekend shooting retreat at the home of her cousin, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon); her umbrella-toting butler played to perfection by Frank Thornton (instantly recognizable to fans as Capt. Peacock from the British TV sitcom, Are You Being Served?). Constance is an amiable fussbudget, relying on McCordle’s kindness for the allowance she lives off while quietly detesting the company he keeps and suffering from a general world-weariness for country life and sports. Her lady’s maid, Mary Maceachran is an awkward young girl, green in the ways of keeping up with Constance’s demands. Her inexperience does come with one virtue. She’s cheap to employ. On the road to William’s estate, Constance meets Sir William’s cousin, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), traveling to the same destination with American film producer, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and his presumably, Scottish valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe). She is curt rather than cordial, expediting their conversation by urging her driver on to William’s country lodgings.
There, the entourage is met by William’s wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas); self-indulgent and bored; carrying on a quiet flirtation with Lord Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance). Meanwhile, Raymond’s wife, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) is having a full-blown affair with William. At the same time, William is carrying on with his upstairs maid, Elsie (Emily Watson) – very chummy, indeed. The rest of William’s guest list is a who’s who of the well-to-do; desperate, financially strapped Anthony (Tom Hollander) and his understanding wife, Lavinia Meredith (Natasha Wightman); money-hungry schemer, Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby), blackmailing William’s daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) over an affair they had that resulted in her pregnancy and subsequent secret abortion; Freddie’s innocent and put upon, if empathetic frump of a wife, Mabel (Claudie Blakley) and, as already mentioned, British film star, Ivor Novello. Interesting, Altman should interject a real life figure of popular entertainment into these fictional proceedings. Indeed, Novello was one of Britain’s most dashing matinee idols. Constance easily diffuses his importance as a self-made man by referring to his appearance in Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927): a flop. Later on, she will discount Morris Weissman’s contributions to American cinema (as producer of the Charlie Chan murder mysteries) by inquiring about his latest project. “Oh, I couldn’t tell you that,” Weissman suggests, “It would ruin it for you.” “Oh,” Constance drolly replies, “But none of us will see it.”
The well-oiled cordiality of these early scenes is contrasted with the unmitigated chaos unfolding below stairs; the arrival of Robert Parks, valet to Lord Stockbridge, unwittingly bringing with him a revelation to unsettle Mrs. Wilson. It seems decades earlier, she engaged in an affair with McCordle and became pregnant; giving up the child to a local orphanage on William’s promise he would see the boy was adopted into a ‘good home’. This never happened, but that child is Parks, although, even with a faded portrait of Mrs. Wilson in the full bloom of her youth by his bedside, he fails to recognize her as the woman who gave him up, merely to keep her position in McCordle’s household. Inevitably, Mrs. Wilson’s decision did not sit well with her sister, Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) who began her career as a cook in one of Sir William’s factories but now manages the kitchen staff at his country estate, and, who ultimately lost her own legitimately born son in the war.
Below stairs is managed by Jennings (Alan Bates), who harbors a deep secret about the war but outwardly is the soul of stern and clear-eyed decorum. As the guests retire to their private rooms for their first evening’s rest in the great house, Henry Denton skulks off to explore. He is met in the corridor by Lady Sylvia who wastes no time tempting the young man with the promise of an affair. Returning to Morris’ suite to capitulate, we quickly learn Denton is not a valet, but rather Weissman’s bi-curious lover; resisting Morris’ advances to return to Sylvia’s room with a glass of hot milk to arrest her nerves. The next day, William gathers everyone for the shooting party. The sportsmen hunt wild pheasant while Morris looks on; everyone reunited at the semi-circular stone portico for an appetizing brunch. The ladies have occupied themselves with more intimate confessions; Lavinia explaining to Constance her dire financial circumstances and Anthony’s desperation to engage William in a scheme to procure some quick cash. At the same time, Freddie threatens Isobel with exposure of her checkered past and Mabel begins to suspect her husband’s infidelity.
At the subsequent dinner, Sylvia tests William’s patience, deliberately goading him about his failure to partake in the war as a soldier. Unable to hold her tongue, Elsie attempts to set the record straight, catching herself in the moment but inadvertently uncovering the fact she has been privy to intimate family secrets she could otherwise not have known about, except if taken into William’s confidence and, by extension, his bed. This revelation causes Elsie to lose her job. It also infuriates William, who retreats to his study, ordering a large bottle of scotch from his man, Probert (Derek Jacobi). Instead, Mrs. Wilson prepares his drink before being ordered from the room. In the adjacent lounge, the others gather to play cards, chat and listen to Ivor Novello sing and play the piano. Morris is thrilled to garner all this backstory for his Charlie Chan picture but privately inquires how on earth Ivor could tolerate ‘these people’ and why he should be so accommodating to entertain them. “How else do you think you received your invitation?” Ivor quietly explains.
Below stairs, Mrs. Croft allows her staff a respite from their chores to listen to the echoes of Ivor’s singing. However, something is afoot – a flagrante delicto between Isobel’s enterprising suitor, Rupert Standish (Laurence Fox) and one of the kitchen maids, Ellen (Sarah Flind); discovered later by head footman, George (Richard E. Grant). Alas, Mary has lost track of Robert Parks. Previously, he had chivalrously saved her from being raped by Henry after his failed seduction by Sylvia came to not. But now, Robert seems to have vanished into thin air. We see a pair of gloved hands remove a kitchen knife from a wood pile out back; Altman giving us the lay of the land with all the usual suspects in place as someone enters Sir William’s private library and, discovering him seemingly napping in his chair, reaches from behind to plunge the knife into his chest. In the adjacent lounge, Sylvia is comforted by Louisa, who offers to coax William out of his self-imposed exile. She inadvertently discovers his corpse instead; her screams drawing the entire household to the study. Sylvia sends for Scotland Yard; Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) arriving on the scene and badly mangling the whole investigation – immediately alienating themselves from the upper crust while staunchly refusing to interview the servant class. The only real interest is in the people who actually ‘knew’ the man, or at least, so Inspector Thompson believes.
Yet, only a day later, Thompson concludes the crime was committed by an unknown intruder. As the guests prepare to return to their own homes, Mary confronts Robert. “Can’t a man hate his own father?” he confides, revealing his true identity to her. Mary next attempts to explain her discovery to Mrs. Wilson, who further confesses she was the one who poisoned William in the event Robert was discovered; hence, no charges can be pressed against him. There is, after all, no law against stabbing a corpse. Armed with this knowledge, Mary recognizes the futility in sharing it with anyone else, even Constance who needlessly worries there will be an inquest. The cars drive off with the hoi poloi and their servants in tow; Ivor serenading their departure with ‘The Land That Might Have Been’ – a fitting, sad-eyed ballad, in retrospect, a foreshadowing of the fast fading era of the English aristocracy.
Gosford Park is a splendidly dark comedy with elements of the drama and tragedy expertly interwoven. Julian Fellowes’ screenplay and Altman’s great gift for overlapping dialogue weaves these finely conceived narrative threads into a singularly satisfying tapestry of cinematic verisimilitude. The characters are engaging, their motivations riveting the audience to the edge of their seats. Without any epic battles, gratuitous acts of violence, car chases or explicit sex, Gosford Park manages to induce its paralytic sway over the audience. Yes, the murder is expected, but it is not the point of the story. Gosford Park harks to an epoch when the journey, rather than the destination, was of utmost importance. As such, its thrills are to be had in their discovery; as example, the clever way Altman and Fellowes have concocted an impressive array of red herrings – including the murder itself – to tide us over. These do not distract so much as they augment and buttress the linear plotting and bring us to the penultimate moment of revelation. Gosford Park’s screenplay serves up a one-two knockout punch as exhilarating as any action/adventure yarn, only without the unnecessary freneticism or wildly reeling camera tricks so oft employed in American movies to distract and anesthetize the audience. There’s none of that in Gosford Park – a movie solidly built on thespians culled from the British theater mostly, who know precisely how to create and sustain a dramatic performance without any help. As Bette Davis used to say, “In my day, the greatest special effect was talent.” There is so much on tap in Gosford Park: a great picture that bears revisiting – over and over again!
I am convinced Alliance Atlantis has been put on this earth to disappoint. Their Blu-Ray is a marginal improvement over the previously issued DVD. Honestly, this doesn’t look like a new 1080p scan to me but an upgrade of the same digital files employed to master the DVD. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the image; ergo, no edge enhancement or aliasing. But on the whole it seems to lack texture and indigenous grain; also, crispness in fine detail is thoroughly lacking. Colors are subdued, the palette generally favoring a brown/beige palette below stairs; the spectrum somewhat enlivened when we are above stairs. My biggest peeve with the Blu-Ray? The image appears slightly soft and generally unimpressive – even slightly faded. Gosford Park is a dimly lit movie for the most part, but this disc really does not do justice to Andrew Dunn’s subtler cinematography. Bottom line: real middle-of-the-road effort here. The audio? 5.1 Dolby Digital (not even DTS). It’s adequate for a mostly dialogue-driven movie but I can only imagine how much better it might have sounded in DTS.
Worse: no extras! Come on. Even the DVD had limited featurettes and two engaging audio commentaries, plus the original theatrical trailer. Fatal: Alliance gives us no chapter stops. What?!?! The disc boots up automatically with a message the movie will commence in a few moments. It does and you are s_ _ t out of luck if you think you can hit pause to go for a snack or bathroom break and not be taken right back to the start afterward! Alliance has so badly bungled this release I cannot in good conscience recommend it, except for content. The movie is brilliant. The transfer is about as far off that assessment as is humanly possible. No effort was employed in bringing Gosford Park to Blu-ray. No money should be spent in support of such obvious dreck! Let’s hope and pray for a remaster and reissue!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)