Wednesday 29 June 2022

Movie Review: Gosford Park (2001)

A comedy of manners combined with a frivolous mystery, Gosford Park is overstuffed with ill-defined characters floundering for a purpose.

In rural England of 1932, the high-society family and friends of the wealthy William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) gather at an estate for a pheasant shoot. The attendees include Hollywood film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam). The house is run by the butler Jennings (Alan Bates) and housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), overseeing a large group of servants including housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson).

Many of the attendees have reasons to dislike each other, and William is threatening to cut-off the income of several family members with stressed finances. His targets include Lady Sylvia's aunt Constance (Maggie Smith), who is accompanied by her bright but inexperienced maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald). Other servants in attendance include valets Robert Parks (Clive Owen) and Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe). Midway through the gathering a murder is committed, and Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) gets involved.

Directed by Robert Altman and written by Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park is intended as an observational exercise focusing on the upstairs/downstairs social structure of England between the wars. With dialogue consisting of nothing but gossip, inane small talk, and snippets of conversations, the film drifts without power then starts to sink under the weight of about 28 characters vying for space. With incoherent introductions buried under a torrent of names and titles, it's impossible to map out who is who. Unsurprisingly, all the characters remain essentially undefined or at best caricatures.

On the margins, talk emerges of a dark past involving illegitimate children and an orphanage, and a murder occurs. But Fellowes and Altman don't really care about the mystery elements: the crime generates about as much concern as one of the pheasants shot out of the sky. The subsequent investigation is dismissive, Inspector Thompson walking in from an Agatha Christie novel then walking out again having achieved nothing.

The set designs and costumes are impressive, and the strictly hierarchical class structure of money, titles, shallowness, and gossip upstairs, contrasted with servants (with their own hierarchy), hard work, and more gossip downstairs, is notionally interesting. But in this house, both levels are overflowing with uninteresting and irrelevant people irritating each other for an agonizingly long 137 minutes.

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