Robert Altman hasn’t had much success as of late. After the brilliant double punch of Hollywood and mid-West satire with “The Player” and “Shortcuts”, things went downhill with “Pret-a-Porter” proving a bit of a fizzer and the various follow-ups including “Cookie’s Fortune” and the detestable “Dr. T & The Women” plain stinking.
Now comes “Gosford Park” which whilst not reaching his previous heights, certainly puts him back on track with a fascinating study of the English class system of the early 20th century. Altman, like Woody Allen, relies on ensemble casts which have in recent years become the bane of his films. Indeed at first there’s SO many characters in this it gets confusing, especially when the servants start being called by the same name as their masters, but after about 20-30 minutes things start clicking and making sense, and soon certain personalities start rising to the forefront whilst sadly a few others fade completely into the background including household name greats like Richard E. Grant, Tom Hollander, Derek Jacobi and Alan Bates.
The ensemble cast is superb all round – Scott Thomas does an icy super-snob spoiled princess routine to a tea, Maggie Smith as a woman both tired of society and yet in love with the gossip of it, Bob Balaban as a Hollywood producer pointing out the outsider perspective of the English system, Clive Owen as the charismatic yet mysterious Mr. Parks, Jeremy Northam as the likeable singing matinee idol and amateur pianist, Michael Gambon as the respectable at one moment and odious old crank the next, and even Ryan Phillippe as a young Scottish servant who isn’t all he seems.
A great choice of Altman’s is the fact that he mixes famous and unknowns together in the two different caste systems so its not like all the famous actors are segregated into one group – . Stephen Fry is sort of the odd one out of the bunch as the rather over the top investigator, but deliciously hams it up in the part. If there is one outstanding member though its Helen Mirren as practically the ultimate servant. Throughout the film she carries an atmosphere of total efficiency masking a barely contained level of pent-up frustration that’s been building for years working for Sir William McCordle (Gambon) and so when the veneer does finally crack, its a devastating display of emotion which you can’t help but tear up at.
There isn’t much of a plot here, this is a character study and like most Altman films it drifts around following various conversations from room to room, table to table though this time there’s an interesting dichotomy as we study the two very different worlds of the upper class and their servants. There’s a murder mystery element to be sure but the intended victim is relatively easy to pick, the culprit relatively obvious despite one or two red herrings – though the motive proves trickier than expected and quite interesting when finally revealed. Thoe hoping for an Agatha Christie like mystery will be a little let down by the basically lack of attention paid to the whole murder angle which has little relation to the film in the end though it does add a little focus as the 80 or so minutes beforehand is all about characters gossiping about each other (which can get confusing due to the sheer number of them).
Still this is no mystery – this is all about the English class system, an even then somewhat outdated hierarchy determined by manners and money which even then was rapidly decaying with only Smith’s character really noticing the erosion and seemingly almost welcoming it. Now that system has pretty much vanished today, and here its played up to more stereotypical levels than it was back then, but its still its a rarely seen or explored subject in cinema.
A pivotal scene in the film comes when one of the servants accidentally blurts out an opinion on something one of the dinner guests said. Its nothing rude or shocking, but the sheer look of horror on everyone’s face because the servant spoke out of place is both hilarious and damning at the same time. From an anthropological viewpoint, its fascinating subject matter as you watch the sheer politeness and charm on display above a not particularly deeply hidden undercurrent of corruption, sex and money (sounds like modern-day Hollywood).
Fellowes’ script isn’t as witty as it makes itself out to be, but it is very intricate and dives right into the action from the start – both lightly satirising and celebrating this most unique cultural microcosm without ever slipping into sentimentality or cheap shots. This is anything but slow moving, the drama and sheer movement is kinetic throughout the first 20 minutes and Altman’s camera never feels overt or intrusive – we remain a true fly on the wall throughout proceedings. Cinematography, production design, costumes are all top notch, and while the film does run a little long, its a very full movie with so much going on its dizzying at times. A welcome touch of class which young ones may find a little slow, but proves a rich treat for adults and patient filmgoers.