Saturday, April 12, 2014

Gosford Park

Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Ah, Robert Altman, you complete son of a bitch! I’m almost always conflicted on the films of Altman. I can see the craftsmanship here. It’s impossible to deny that the man knew what he was doing behind the camera. But his films also have so many characters to pay attention to, so many lives to become embroiled in and to keep separate. Gosford Park has a cast of dozens, and many of them are intended to be important to us in the course of the film. This is not a situation with a couple of key characters with a cast of one-dimensional background players. No, we’re supposed to know who everyone is, even after a short introduction. It’s a short-term Downton Abbey, and evidently, there’s a quiz at the end.

That’s the biggest issue with virtually all of Altman, at least in my opinion. With Gosford Park, we not only have a house full of minor nobility and rich people, we also have all of their servants, and one thing we’re supposed to keep in mind is who works for whom. On the surface, Gosford Park is a murder mystery of the old school, Agatha Christie sort, despite the lack of a convincing Hercule Poirot character. But that’s just on the surface.

The short version of the story is this: a collection of wealthy people, some with ties to the British noble class, show up at the country house of another rich person for a shooting party. During the course of the weekend, people argue with each other about money; complain endlessly about their situation; a lot of sex is had, frequently crossing class lines; several affairs and dirty dealings are revealed, and eventually the host is found dead with a knife in his chest. Moreover, a quick investigation reveals that before he was stabbed, the host was actually poisoned, so the person who stabbed him just stabbed a corpse.

Simple enough, right? Now, pay attention to the murder mystery when the house is loaded with people who have a past history with each other—a history that sometimes affects the story and just as often does not. Tack on a couple of dozen servants who have their own intrigues with the wealthy class and between themselves. Add in a guy who claims to be a servant but is actually an actor researching a role and allusions to the past, and it’s suddenly easy for even a murder to get lost in the shuffle. In truth, after the murder happens, it appears that the vast majority of the people involved forget it pretty quickly.

The biggest sell here is the cast, which is impressive. Numbered among the people we spend time with here are Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Jeremy Northam, Bob Balaban, Ryan Phillippe, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, and Derek Jacobi. This is the sort of a cast that most directors would kill to work with, but it’s also pretty much par for the course with Altman. His casts have always been one of the strongest elements of his films.

Another sell here is the story behind the surface plot of the murder. The real point of Gosford Park is the relationship between the nobility and the servant class. Typically, in a drama like this one, we spend virtually all of our time with the nobility because these are the people we’re supposed to be the most interested in. Here, we spend more time with the servants, and through their eyes, we see the real nature of the relationship. Essentially, what we discover is that the noble classes are little more than parasites on the servants. We’re led to believe that the nobles truly do not see their servants as anything more than pieces of furniture, except when someone needs to have some basic physical desires fulfilled, and even then, they’re little more than ambulatory sex toys. But without the servants, we’re given to understand that the nobles wouldn’t last a week, unable to feed or dress themselves.

No moments display this better than two in particular. In the first, Lady Constance (Maggie Smith) tells her servant Mary (Kelly Macdonald) to wash a shirt for her. Mary does, putting herself in several painful, embarrassing, and even physically threatening situations to do so only to be told the next morning that the shirt won’t be needed. Lady Constance doesn’t register or care about how much trouble it was to get the shirt clean; she just doesn’t need it. The second is the character of police inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry), who routinely botches aspects of the investigation and determines the servants aren’t worth questioning because only the people who really matter matter to the case.

I get the quality with Gosford Park. I understand that this is a beautifully made film, and Altman’s camerawork is about as good as it gets in the last 50 years. But I don’t care about the story at all. There are too many people for me to attempt to follow and too many subplots and red herrings for me to keep track of. I felt like I should be taking notes. So many characters have such little impact on the plot that I wonder about their inclusion. The entire point of Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) in the story is to get his servant into the house. That’s it. He has no other function.

In short, I get why people like this; I just find it impossible to give a rip about any of these people, noble or servant.

Why to watch Gosford Park: A cast to kill or die for.
Why not to watch: So many characters, it’s easy to get lost.


  1. You are far, far kinder to this film than I. But you already know how much I (publicly) hate this movie. Not only are there too many characters, especially characters that don't matter, but you don't care about a single one of them. It's a murder mystery where it feels like absolutely nothing happens. The dialogue is all spoken in a strange mangled whisper, so it's hard to understand almost any of what's said. And on top of everything, it's just... so... DULL. Sure it's a cast to kill for, in theory (except Ryan Phillippe, who is a good actor in his own right, but is the oddest inclusion here), but all of them feel utterly wasted in this story. Even the amazing Stephen Fry, who has arguably the best character in the film, feels wasted in this lump of useless mass of a film.

    1. I'll add only one thing to your rant--the murder itself happens a good 90 minutes into the film. The first hour and a half of the film is just exposition. And after it happens, no one seems to care about it past five minutes later.

  2. I agree whole-heartedly with everything you touched on in your review. It’s well made & well cast but often a real chore to get through. At the end of the day, I just didn’t care for the overloaded scenario and the actual murder-mystery wasn’t terribly compelling either.

    I would however like to check out more of Altman’s films because I’m not at all familiar with his filmography. Any suggestions?

    1. I haven't seen a whole bunch, but I would suggest "The Player." That one's really good and has a cast that blows this one out of the water.

    2. I'll second The Player. M*A*S*H is worth your time, and I rather surprisingly liked Nashville even though I kind of expected to hate it.

      Short Cuts was a chore for me, as was McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

  3. I tend to like mysteries, but like you said the one in this film isn't really the central point. I also remember pretty much saying "it was ________" about 5 seconds after the body was found, although at this point I can't remember now who it was.

    No, I actually liked all the shifting interplay among the many characters. Did I love this movie? No, but I liked it well enough.

    And just as an aside, if you don't like having to remember who the many, many characters are you may want to skip ever watching Game of Thrones. I'm pretty sure I've recommended it to you in the past. They add at least a dozen more people every year. Yeah, a few die off each year, but still the number is dozens of regulars and several dozen occasional characters. And believe it or not, but they have left out many more that are in the books.

    1. I've read the first two GoT books, but eventually got tired of everyone dying, so I stopped. For something like a series, a lot of characters isn't as much of a problem because there's so much more time to explore them all.

  4. Confusion and lack of engagement – I agree. But what I do like (very much!) in this movie is the fluid camera work.