Robert Altman’s melancholic murder mystery ‘Gosford Park’ turns 20 and it’s as rich as it’s ever been [Retrospective]
I remember, sitting in the theater, the distinctive feeling of immediate intimacy while watching Kelly MacDonald in a cramped front seat, looking out rain-speckled windows in the opening scenes of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. I felt as if the movie was prepping me for an expansive journey, from the viewpoint of seeming minutiae—a view not gleaming nor crystal clear, but muddled and complicated—and that the film would ultimately have a lasting impact.
The film’s screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, a master of British aristocratic language would later become well-known for creating the incredibly popular Downton Abbey series. While there are strains of Downton Abbey in Gosford Park—a pre-WWII-set country estate and its upstairs-downstairs gossip and intrigue, and even Maggie Smith herself, reliably giving amusing stings with quick-flit glares and clipped quips—differences loom between the medium between TV and film. In Downton Abbey, there is the roaming nature of television and its ability to pile on more twists and turns within roughly hour-long capsules over the course of fifty-two episodes. In Gosford Park, under Altman’s stringent direction, Fellowes’ labyrinth narrative and zigzagging dialogue from a myriad of characters in the compact medium of the movie, creates a simmering pot that eventually boils over to a melancholic resolution.
At the time, the film was marketed as lighthearted mystery: one could think of pulpy old sleuth paperbacks or an Agatha Christie yarn. The trailer features jaunty music and flashes of arguably the film’s biggest star at its time, Ryan Phillipe–to draw in a crowd that wasn’t already baked-in to another familiar, murder-at-the-estate whodunit. In one moment of the film, Bob Balaban, who began the idea of the movie with Altman, plays a Hollywood producer, and tells his fellow dinner hosts and guests, rather earnestly and obviously of his latest Charlie Chan project: “Most of it takes place at a shooting party in a country house. Sort of like this one, actually. Murder in the middle of the night… a lot of guests for the weekend… everyone’s a suspect.” Ironically, from the voice of a producer in a movie, this is sort of the “pitch” version of describing what this movie could be, but of course, we know a director as brainy and complex as Altman is up to something more.
What’s ultimately so stirring and so subversive about Altman’s piece is that the murder itself, which comes well into the 137-minute picture, almost feels inconsequential. The film is peppered with clues and diversions—plenty of obvious frames of poison bottles lined here there and everywhere that almost feels farcical. In most mysteries, I’m drawn to the how and who-did-it; here, I’m drawn to societal meanings of the act: what’s unsayable in the confines of the characters’ strata. Most of the cast of characters seem equally as nonchalant about the death itself and more concerned about when are they leaving and what’s for breakfast. Instead, larger issues of class and insidious interlinings of sexual exploitation within are reflected, ultimately peaking in the confines of a room, where a cry is stifled (“Don’t cry… they’ll hear you”). Altman is known for freewheeling ensemble films that feel as if they are wandering aimlessly (The Long Goodbye and Nashville among them), Gosford Park can feel that way as well, with its many subplots unspooling, but like those aforementioned Altman films, it also feels meticulously mounted and perfected.
It’s the quick dialogue and seemingly casual statements that have intrinsic, deeper meaning (“What purpose could it possibly serve?”) and the script’s intricate structure that earned Julian Fellowes an Oscar for Original Screenplay (ultimately, the film’s only win that year). On this most recent viewing, I was amazed how much more I picked up upon and I find it’s even more compelling now than I did when loving it in 2001. In filming scenes, actors wore microphones and were encouraged by Altman to improvise dialogue—occasionally their lines amplified in the post-production sound mix. On this most recent viewing, I was amazed how much more I picked up upon and I find it’s even more compelling now than I did when loving it in 2001. At an older age, perhaps I recognize more than ever the ridiculousness and pitfalls of rigorous, meaningless decorum and classist division, and the resentment and cruelty it can breed. Also, the wretchedness of male dominance and monetary and sexual exploitation. Michael Gambon’s Sir William, a former sweatshop factory owner (with many female employees), is a bit of a doddering mess, clinging to a squirmy dog and fiddling with guns.
The film manages a tone that’s both spirited and dour. Visually, the film has a sort of muddy-look—darker browns and blacks prevail–with few moments of bright color. In that sense, it’s more akin to the earthen feel of McCabe & Mrs. Miller than the gleaming slickness of Downton (interestingly the cinematographer Andrew Dunn is the same cinematographer on the forthcoming Downton Abbey: A New Era). The camera always feels like its moving, lingering over characters as they walk and react, sometimes zooming in closer to their faces as they overhear conversations around them. The editing by Tim Squyres is particularly masterful and gives the movie its sense of drive and momentum, seamlessly moving between rooms. This “busy-ness” does not detract from the experience of the film because it’s almost invisible to the eye; the script is also operating on the same notes rhythmically.
Another treat, naturally, is the ensemble, many of whom have become well-known in recent years. It was surprising to see some cast members I didn’t recall when originally seeing it or in subsequent re-watches. Richard E. Grant, of Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Jeremy Swift, now iconic on Ted Lasso, playing downstairs staff alone in the glinting light of the dining room—Grant’s icy glares reading insecurity and an attempt to display power; Swift, the more piteous one. Helen Mirren, too, has become more prominent in later years. She gives a particularly devastating turn here. Her “I am the perfect servant line” is read with such a dead affectation that brims with the slightest note of ache. As the head housekeeper, she haunts the estate, seemingly knowing what everyone is doing, looking through the wavy glass of the kitchen windows with a stark sideways stare. Kelly Macdonald’s Mary is sometimes a voice of reason and empathy in the movie, one that asks questions the audience would want to ask—especially when confronting Clive Owen’s character on his mysterious past. She is a perfect foil to head-housemaid Elsie, played by Emily Watson. Both tell it how it is in different fashions: Mary naïve and wide-eyed but also quietly assiduous; Elsie, jaded, cynical but also dreamy (film stars posted on her walls). I love the dissonance between their two voices too: Mary’s slow, mannered Scottish-accented speaking style and Elsie’s harsh, rushed little sentences between puffs of cigarettes. That the two can be sort of chummy, is one of the bright spots of the pic. On this viewing, Smith’s presence was even more funny. It’s a schtick she’s perfected on Downton Abbey, and here, every one of her lines zing. While famed star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) plays the piano and starts singing in the drawing room, Smith’s Constance remarks wickedly: “It seems to be much more than just background music, somehow or other.” It’s a delicious performance. The work of all the actors in the picture are piercing, even in small roles. I remember how jarring Phillipe felt on first viewing— especially with his put-upon accent and the rest of the cast just clicking, but the presence of this American actor “posing” as downstairs staff is almost comically meta.
Every week in 2001, it felt like there were multiple options of something to see in theaters (both the fabulous and the nadir). The year was a bevy of memorable art house experiences: Amelie, Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Ghost World, and Donnie Darko, among them. I remember the packed house to see the unexpectedly bleak A.I., the audience groaning towards the end of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, and the near empty theater in the week after September 11th at Glitter. At the time of the release of Gosford Park, the world continued to seem more uncertain, and my love and appreciation of movies and complicated character portrayals was growing deeper. On first impression, Gosford Park could seem like a stodgy period piece, but thanks to the impeccable script, craft, cast, and Altman’s deft direction, it’s more probing and fascinating—with enduring parallels to our fractured contemporary society.
Gosford Park opened in the U.S. on December 26, 2001 in New York and Los Angeles from USA Films before its wider release on January 18, 2002. It earned seven Oscar nominations and won for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.