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Gosford Park

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Gosford Park

Starring: Clive Owen, Helen Mirren
Director: Robert Altman
Rated: R
RunTime: 137 Minutes
Release Date: January 2002
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Suspense

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

Look, it's "Upstairs Downstairs" with a murder mystery lobbed into the middle, as directed by the inimitable Robert Altman. In the consistently enjoyable "Gosford Park," the air is full of overlapping dialogue as cameras glide between the upper class and those who serve them. The huge cast features a who's who of outstanding British actors along with a few notable American ones. Kristen Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Richard E. Grant and Bob Balaban star, with veterans like Maggie Smith and newcomers like Ryan Phillippe (yes, that little twerp from the teen movies) stealing scenes. What a treat it is to peep in on these clever, nasty people and their scandalous goings on.

Set in November 1932, the tale takes place at Gosford Park, the sprawling country estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Thomas), as a group of friends and acquaintances arrive for a shooting party. While the guests settle in to their luxurious upper floor rooms, their maids and valets join the already large service staff below-stairs. Over the course of the weekend, deals will be proposed, trysts will occur, gossip will flow freely and someone will be murdered. Twice.

Mind you, the murder isn't the core of the story. As with David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," it serves primarily as an excuse to keep the players together and permit us to extend our visit. In fact, the crime doesn't even occur until the second half of the film, allowing the introduction of two more engaging characters to the roster and setting several actors up for some dandy cathartic speeches in the closing moments of the production.

If you're concerned that keeping track of so many characters will be difficult, let me assure you that it is, but so what? "Gosford Park" was made for repeated viewings. On your initial visit, just settle back and let all the conversations flow over you. You'll miss a lot, but pick up on enough to have a fine time. Each subsequent viewing offers more treats as the names and relationships begin to stick. I've watched the film four times and enjoyed it a bit more with each screening.

As you're sorting out the plots, don't neglect the film's other pleasures. When he's on his game ("M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "The Player," "Cookie's Fortune"), Robert Altman handles mega-ensemble pieces better than just about anyone and the 77-year-old filmmaker is certainly on his game with this work. Kristen Scott Thomas stated, "The way we worked here was very different from many other films where you prepare and you know exactly what you're going to do. We didn't rehearse, we just all turned up! Robert described it like throwing pearls on a parquet floor - we would see who was going to bump into whom and how it would all fit together."

Altman kept the spontaneous feel by having cinematographer Andrew Dunn use two cameras to simultaneously track around different sections of the action. It helped the secondary actors in any given scene remain in character because they never knew for sure whether or not one of the cameras was recording their movement.

Along with the many engaging character studies, the film presents a fascinating portrait of the class system, with emphasis on the customs independently devised by the servants. "Below stairs, there are almost more layers of hierarchy than above stairs," Altman noted in the press kit. For below-stairs meals, seating assignments are as rigid with the servants as with their employers. And then there is the matter of renaming. Below-stairs visitors are referred to by the names of their employers. For example, houseguest Morris Weissman's valet Henry Denton is addressed by the Gosford Park staff as Mr. Weissman for the duration of his stay.

While the screenplay offers such sociological nuggets, pure entertainment remains its focus. Every actor seems perfect for his or her role and each player gets time in the spotlight, though a few cast members stand out. My favorite was Maggie Smith as Constance, Countess of Trentham, and Lady Sylvia's aunt. Regardless of the situation, Constance is always ready with a condescending glance and a withering remark. While other visitor fawn over fellow guest, British matinee idol Ivor Norvello (Jeremy Northam, playing a real film star from the '30s), Constance turns to him and coolly says, "How much longer will you go on making films? It must be hard when you don't know when to throw in the towel." The poison-tongued woman turns into something altogether different when it comes to meals, however. Merely contemplating breakfast, she goes "Oooh, yum yum!" while clapping her hands together like a child.

Hers is but one of many delightful performances in Robert Altman's unpretentious look at pretentiousness. While "Gosford Park" has tender, telling and tragic moments, the film is memorable for not trying to be "important." Don't worry about all the names and titles, just sit back and have fun.

Copyright 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott

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