Sunday, November 13, 2011

Gosford Park (2001)


An assortment of respectable guests gather in Michael Gambon's country home for a weekend of shooting, and it happens that several of the guests have good reason for wanting our dear Dumbledore dead.  Cue foreshadowing.  And then [SPOILER] he turns up dead.  But whodunit?

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that the first time I saw this movie, I did not like it at all.  It seemed pointless.

Some time later, and for reasons I can no longer recall, I went back and watched it again.  And I discovered that I really, really liked it.  By the time I listened to Robert Altman's feature length commentary, I was absolutely sold on the movie.  I've watching it probably half a dozen times since then, and it never ceases to impress me.

Ostensibly a whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie or Clue, the film is more accurately an examination of social classes and rules of society in the 1930s, as the British class system (and the Empire itself) was on the decline.  There is, in fact, a touch of the 19th century drawing room novel here.  If Jane Austen had a dark streak and wrote murder mysteries, she might have written something like this.  It's not terribly fast paced, and what action there is tends to be on the subtle side, but the result is still tremendous.

The casting is borderline brilliant--Maggie Smith as the snarky, catty great aunt, Kristin Scott Thomas as the bored wife of the murdered man, Helen Mirren as the utterly competent housekeeper, Stephen Fry as the less-than-competent police inspector, Ryan Phillipe as the skeezy visiting valet, Clive Owen as the mysterious visiting valet, Bob Balaban as an out-of-place American film director invited to the festivities by movie star Jeremy Northam, Kelly MacDonald as the shy and inexperienced visiting lady's maid, Emily Watson as the hard-boiled worldly-wise housemaid . . . with an assortment of other skilled British actors making up the rest of the guests and servants. Smith and Mirren were nominated for Academy Awards, but I don't think there's an acting misstep anywhere in the cast.

You'll probably need to watch this with the subtitles on (or watch it multiple times) in order to catch everything--there are several groups scenes involving multiple conversations that are hard to track.  But the dialogue is clever enough to be well worth the effort.  And honestly, the commentary is fascinating.  I'm not a sophisticated enough viewer to have caught a lot of the nuance and subtlety that Altman wove into the film, so I greatly appreciated having the cinematographic and directorial choices explained.  For example, the servants are the audience's eyes and ears, and each scene is seen through their eyes, though they themselves are dismissed as irrelevant. 

This is an incredible film.  If you aren't blown away at first, I recommend giving it another try.  Then again, I realize it's not for everyone.  But if you dig Jane Austen, Upstairs/Downstairs-type stuff, and Agatha Christie, it might be worth it to give this movie a try.  Or two.  I'm certainly glad I did.

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