directed by Robert Altman
starring Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant, Maggie Smith
Robert Altman’s 2001 take on British murder mysteries and class dynamics, Gosford Park has oddly become considered somewhat a lesser Altman film despite being Altman’s biggest box office hit, outside of M*A*S*H*, and being nominated for six Academy Awards. The film won the Oscar for the Julian Fellowes screenplay. Arrow Academy is giving the film a chance at reappraisal with a brand new release from Arrow Academy.
Gosford Park is Robert Altman’s take on classic British mysteries from authors like Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham (Campion). But in this film the mystery is really just the hook on which to hang a biting social satire with the two worlds of the gentry and their servants occupying literal and metaphorical upstairs and downstairs or life at the end of the great British empire. The servants are omnipresent yet invisible to their employers. It isn’t that they are treated cruelly, it is more they aren’t regarded at all. The film is a lush production full of beautiful set, lavish costumes, petty aristocrats, and gossiping servants If this sounds a bit like Downton Abbey you aren’t wrong, as screenwriter Julian Fellowes went on to create the ITV/PBS phenomenon. Although the murder mystery element is not Altman’s primary objective, he still sets it up wonderfully, overflowing with red herrings, muddy footprints, and secret passages, but once the detective shows up you soon realize this is no pastiche of Hercule Poirot or Albert Campion.
The film is prime Altman with his signature method of shooting huge scenes with impossibly long tracking shots with overlapping dialogue. Robert Altman’s constantly prowling camera stalks the labyrinthine house as they move between the two worlds, the upstairs and downstairs of the English country house. Part of the effect effectively turns the audience into an eavesdropping servant picking up bit and pieces of action and dialogue that eventually stitches together into a story. This isn’t a film about grand speeches but more about petty gossip. Altman and Fellowes historically ground the story with a real-life character Ivor Novello, a minor actor and composer of the period as well as Bob Balaban’s character, American film producer, Morris Weissman who is at the party researching for the actual 20th Century Fox mystery Charlie Chan in London. Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant, Alan Bates, and Derek Jacobi lead the large, impressive cast. The film is decidedly an Altman film with a very different feel from the similar territory contemporary films from Merchant Ivory. The movie is glamorous by if far from stuffy. The interlopers from Hollywood are clearly meant to be the filmmakers’ proxy. They don’t understand the world they are entering and their ignorance draws disdain from both the sides as they draw attention to the absurdity of the entire system and not playing by the agreed upon rules.
The first act of the film is rather disorienting as the guest arrive at Gosford Park and the servants are introduced to the house staff and given their housing assignments and set down with the rules of the house amidst the machine of the house frantically preparing for dinner while straining to accommodate the interlopers. Altman and Fellowes make use an odd contrivance where the visiting guests’ servants don’t use their own names but are addressed by the name of their master or mistress. It feels confusing at first, but the cast is so huge it actually simplifies keeping track of the characters and especially with keeping track of which servants are with which member of the gentry. The aristocrats of the “upstairs” world are utterly dependent on their servants yet they are barely acknowledge as people by their employers. This point is visually driven home by Altman as a member of the downstairs staff appears in every scene that takes place in the upstairs world.
Gosford Park, like most Altman pictures, gets better with repeated viewings as you become less concerned about the mechanics of the plot and can really focus in on the elaborate visual details and eccentric character moments. It has far less improvisation than generally expected in an Altman film due to the rigid propriety of the British class system and the intricate script from Julian Fellowes. Some of the input from actors and to be reeled in for the sake of historical accuracy and to this end Altman brought in people who had actually worked as domestic servants to be on set technical advisors. Nevertheless this structure seems to have still created fertile grounds for this impressive collection of talent to build fascinating characters often forced to rely heavily on body language to convey volumes of information.
Arrow Video has become known as a label creating amazing restorations and presentations of genre films. With the Arrow Academy imprint they are also putting the same dedication into prestige and arthouse film as a direct competitor to Criterion Collection. The disc contains a 2K restoration which looks great. It may not be a go to disc to show off your home theater but it does a fine job of preserving the delicate, soft, photography of Andrew Dunn. Extras include three audio commentaries, one from by director Robert Altman, production designer Stephen Altman and producer David Levy, one from critics Geoff Andrew and David Thompson (author of Altman on Altman, and the third by screenwriter/producer Julian Fellowes, making of featurettes, and a number of deleted scenes with commentary from Robert Altman. The extras on this release are basically a film theory course that digs deep on the how and why of a magnificently crafted piece of cinema.