Viewing a film like Robert Altman’s Gosford Park requires necessary hindsight and experience. I had seen the film before, but I was 15 and didn’t care about stuffy British murder mysteries with societal commentaries. My patience has aged as well as this film.
The star of the film is the house, where all the action takes place over the course of a few days. A group of friends and family of a wealthy industrialist (Michael Gambon) are invited to shoot pheasants, wine, dine and gossip. Meanwhile, their maids, valets, cooks, butlers and all manner of servants live their own lives while trying to navigate their duties. Along for the ride is an American filmmaker (Bob Balaban) and his oddly-accented valet (Ryan Phillipe), who take in the sights and sounds of British aristocracy.
Multitudes of stories from multitudes of characters abound. Maids are having affairs with the aristocrats, women are married off through a deck of cards, valets grew up in orphanages, business deals are on the line and most of all, someone ends up dead.
The cast is sprawling in scope and talent. Standouts include Kristen Scott-Thomas, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Northam, Kelly Macdonald, Eileen Atkins, Emily Watson, Alan Bates and Stephen Fry. That doesn’t include smaller bit players like Camilla Rutherford, Charles Dance, Tom Hollander, Derek Jacobi, Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Swift. No actor is subpar and every role feels fully realized.
Altman’s expertise with sprawling casts talking over each other lend the film increased credibility for each character’s particular motivations. Phillipe’s casting as a Scottish valet who doesn’t know the ends and outs of service are given further credence by most characters commenting on his peculiar accent. Idle gossip between maids and cooks about the host’s sexual proclivities are echoed in other parts of the house.
The film’s massive cast is also its biggest weakness as there are so many storylines going at once, other fall by the wayside. Boringly handsome rich young men blend together, as do dour wives and daughters who pine after these men. Some characters and stories, like that of head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson, played by Mirren, are wildly intriguing and poignant, but she will go long stretches with no impact or screentime. The film has so many balls in the air at once, it proves difficult to maintain a difference between each.
If the audience doesn’t understand what is going on, Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes do. Each one of these characters could be the subject of their own separate film, but this is a snapshot of a moment in time, and despite having clear stories to cling to, to many lives are simultaneously intersecting to keep focus on one. The lasting legacy of this film is the show that it spawned: Downton Abbey. The longevity and complexity of the show lends credence to just how much content this film squeezes in to its 137 minute runtime.
Altman would never again make a film with such a cultural impact and Fellowes has yet to achieve a level of film success, though he seems perfectly content with ruling the British television airwaves. Gosford Park feels like a moment in time and one where a director nearing the end of his career and a screenwriter at the start of his, intersected and brought every English thespian they could find and put together the kind of prestige ensemble one can only dream about.
Next week, marital strife and grief reach a critical peak with Todd Field’s In the Bedroom