GOSFORD PARK in my spoil-sport view, is director Robert Altman’s best movie. While I enjoyed much of Nashville and Short Cuts (similar opus setups dissecting society through a slew of characters) I generally have always had a rough go with most of his output. The disjointed narratives, nervous camera and toying with sound that his devoted fans find liberating, innovative and naturalistic too often hit me as indulgent, obvious and wearisome. Trying to find a somewhat happy, half-way-together person in this celebrated auteur mavericks bag is harder than finding an honest politician. That wheeze now exhaled…
…this 2001 whodunit, set in the stratified, calcified absurdity of British country manor society in the war-paused mid 30s seems a perfect target for both Altman’s unsparing caustic send up of norms and his penchant for gliding visuals and accompanying overlapped dialogue.
Instead of dispensing dramatic focus across large arenas like cities and industries, per the movies mentioned above, or honing in on insulated groups of tiresomely quirky characters played by actors-with-tics (God, Save the Audience from Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall & Co.) the action here is confined to the figurative and literal up & down stairs of a poshly decadent country estate, the people above and below feeding off one another in a polite doom-dance of fake civility. Again, nobody in the mashup is less-than-miserable (or at least harried), but the shoe fits this time (the Pessimistic Oxford?), and the superb cast play off one another as to—appropriately enough—the manor born.
Everyone is good, no star is allowed to hog the spotlight (I enjoyed Maggie Smith best), the script is sharp and incisive. Julian Fellowes, writing off a concept developed by the director with co-producer and co-star Bob Balaban, would go on to develop Downton Abbey.
Balaban and Ryan Philippe are the token ( barely tolerated) Americans vying for service and favors among the likes of Alan Bates, Kristen Scott Thomas, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant, Charles Dance, Jeremy Northam, Eileen Atkins and Helen MacDonald.
Bon mots abound, along with putdowns, revelations, tips and faux paus. Hurried forbidden sex, a little civilized pheasant-blasting, and a homicide make for a way to pass the time between The Somme and Dunkirk.
It meanders in the last third; the 137 minutes could have been shorn a good fifteen, and there are too many characters, so several are undeveloped enough to be extraneous, but for the greater part it holds together, deftly weaving between the clueless rich (lets’ just call them what they are– The Parasite Class) and the toehold-jostling savvy servants they would be lost without.
The film cost $19,800,000 and took in $87,754,000, Altman’s most successful film financially since 1970 and M.A.S.H. Critics applauded, and the Oscars awarded the Script and nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actresses (Smith and Mirren), Art Direction and Costume Design. Altman has always been more of a critics darling and actors crush than an audience pleaser, but he scored with everyone this time.