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GOSFORD PARK

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grand, Derek Jacobi, Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Philippe, Maggie Smith, Kirstin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson
Director:  Robert Altman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  138 Minutes
Release Date:  June 25, 2002

“What about YOUR life?”

“I told you, I’m the perfect servant…I have no life.”

Film **

Gosford Park is ambitious and literate, a masterpiece of technical filmmaking, and gorgeous to look at.  It also has very little real entertainment value.

Being a fan of Robert Altman, I saw the picture during its theatrical run, where I found as many things to praise about it as I did to criticize.  I was anxious for my second viewing with this DVD, hoping that maybe this time I would see more of what caused so many critics to laud it so highly, and why it was considered by many to be one of the year’s best films.

I’m still not entirely convinced that the fault isn’t mine, but so help me, I found little to care about in this movie.  It’s strictly a comedy of manners that emphasizes behavior over character, takes a great deal of license from other (and better) offerings like The Remains of the Day or even more so, Upstairs, Downstairs, and tries to throw in a little Agatha Christie for good measure.  Altman himself calls this film a “whodunit” picture, but it kind of fails in that regard…the murder that is key to the plot doesn’t take place until halfway into the film, and the resolution, while dramatically satisfying, is completely cold as a solution to a mystery.  In other words, Altman was too busy being clever with his film to remember to leave the audience something to piece together and solve.

The cast is a first rate group…go back up and read the names again.  But with about 35 main characters to juggle, and not much distinction between them (even though there are servants and masters), you might find it a bit of a headache to try and keep them all separate and identifiable in your mind.  With Nashville, where once again a multitude of characters were mixed, at least there was always clear cut distinction.  Here, everybody pretty much acts the same.  You’ll recognize the actors in most cases, like Kirsten Scott Thomas, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith and others…but you might be damned if you can remember their characters’ names when they come on screen or exactly what their relationship is to everyone else.

Seeing the film a second time helped me with that a little…I was less confused, but not completely out of the mist, and at the same time, I realized I cared too little about any of these people to make the effort to keep them all in mind.  By the time the conclusion rolls around, so few of them really mattered, and the ones that really did will stick in your mind to the exclusion of all else.

The script, by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, is filled with dry wit that offers a chuckle here or there, but no real belly laughs.  A sampling of his dialogue:  “Is she affected, or is she British?” one asks.  Another:  “Quit wailing.  People will think you’re Italian.”

The world he and Altman creates centers around an incredibly beautiful house that’s a pleasure to be in for better than a couple of hours…if only there were really anybody in the house worth listening to.  The company is divided between the upper class, who are annoyingly boring with their pickiness and droll speech, and the servants, who would be more interesting in and of themselves if only they didn’t stop TALKING about the people they serve!

The plot involves very little until the murder halfway through…mainly a series of encounters crossing real and imagined lines, a bit of naughty sex, and lots and lots of pretty sounding but ultimately inconsequential dialogue.  After the crime, things get a bit more lively, especially with the arrival of the typically inept but funny inspector (Fry), whose botchery makes sure the mystery remains unsolved.  At least for the characters on screen.

We, the audience, see the resolution…as I mentioned, it’s a terrific ending dramatically, but not quite so satisfying from a mystery point of view.  Frankly, any one of the characters could have done it had Fellowes only typed a different name at the end and a few different lines.  It does lead to a great and memorable scene with one of the most notable cast members, whose name I will omit here as not to spoil the surprise.

Altman’s technical achievement with this film is noteworthy, particularly in terms of the art direction and costuming which brings the early 20th century to vivid life.  His camerawork, as usual, is impeccable, as is his handling of terrific amounts of action and characters.  But regardless of those who liked this movie better than I did, I can’t really see people still talking about Gosford Park in 20 years the way we talk about Nashville or M*A*S*H now.

Gosford Park is a beautiful film with very little soul or heart…and not nearly as clever as it thinks.

Video ***

The anamorphic transfer is essentially a good one…most visual flaws can be attributed to the filming style.  For example, there is noticeable grain in certain shots, but not because of compression…these are owing to the higher contrast film stock Altman used to take advantage of lower light.  These scenes also are a bit softer than others, but again, the effect is intentional.  Generally, coloring is very good, and the detail in the house is impressive and magnificent.  I noticed no shimmer or bleeding to spoil the imagery…nicely done overall.

Audio ***

I don’t believe the subwoofer came on once during the entire presentation, which is surprising, considering that the film opens with a terrific rain/thunder sequence.  It’s so real sounding and makes such good use of front and rear stages you might just think the weather turned bad around your house…yet the thunder’s bass is handled by your regular speakers.  In many of the film’s crowd scenes, the multi-channel sound is well used, keeping voices and sounds of the house coming at you from all directions.  The audio is well balanced and clever in its mix and function, and therefore better than you might expect for a largely dialogue-oriented film.

Features ****

Robert Altman continues his trend of not producing the best commentary tracks in the world…as with many of his other DVD releases, the track he offers here is frequently sparse, and tending to state the obvious.  The good bits of information are like gold nuggets…you have to kind of pan for them.  A better track is the one by Oscar winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who speaks more fluidly, and offers plenty of interesting stories as to where ideas for incidents in the script came from…some were based on true occurrences!

The disc also includes a making-of featurette, a look at the authenticity of the movie as far as the servants’ roles are concerned, and a 25 minute Q&A session with Altman and some of his cast and crew.  Rounding out are twenty minutes of deleted scenes with optional Altman commentary, and though unlisted on the box, the original trailer.

Summary:

Many loved Gosford Park; I simply wasn’t one of them.  There is certainly plenty to admire in this ambitious effort from maverick director Robert Altman, but ultimately, it lacks the presence to be considered one of his better achievements.