Gosford Park

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Movie Review by Toby White

Starring: Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Phillippe, Tom Hollander
Director: Robert Altman

GOSFORD PARK, Altman’s first foray into Britain, is a slice-of-life piece on the British aristocracy and servitude in the 1930s. Sir William (Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Scott Thomas) invite several distinguished guests to their estate for a weekend shooting party. This wonderful medley of characters upstairs is equally matched by those serving them downstairs as gossip begets gossip until the ultimate ice-breaker: Sir William’s murder…and nearly everyone has a motive. The story-line, it has to be said, sounds like an Agatha Christie hybrid and, Altman admits, there was an influence to this effect but, moreover, it’s a fly-on-the-wall examination of a society gone by.

Now, what is about Robert Altman that he attracts such a stellar cast to join him whenever he embarks on a project? In GOSFORD PARK, in case you haven’t seen the posters, it reads like a Who’s Who in British acting: Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Alan Bates, Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Richard E Grant, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Kelly McDonald, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Emily Watson, Charles Dance…need I go on? Must be the maverick in him, I guess.

It’s not just the acting elite though, Hollywood society leaps on a Robert Altman picture with equal gusto and he’s guaranteed to be nominated for every award going. But let’s not get swept up in it all. The cinematography’s crap, the ending’s tenuous and the murder’s a farce. But each of these is easily justifiable when you see the film. The set-pieces are unique: all the cast were rigged with radio mikes and required to improvise to establish the tone of over-lapping conversations with cameras rolling in various parts of the room catching snatches of dialogue simultaneously, so it’s no wonder the cinematography would suffer otherwise there’d be lights in shot all over the shop. The murder plot-line is merely a ruse to keep everyone in the same place while the investigation goes on and this was Altman’s intention because he wanted a character piece. And what a character piece: from the camp Hollywood producer of CHARLIE CHAN movies to the matinee idol, from the whimsical aunt to the cook jealous of the housekeeper and, without exception, the cast delivers. Its comedic, refreshing, insightful and inspired.

If that’s not enough to want to see the film, here’s a couple of reasons why Altman is who he is. During a Q&A in LA in December 2001, Altman said that he hired Stephen Frears as a back-up director in case he died during the production! When quizzed as to why there were a handful of ill-placed f-words in the film he stated that they were there to secure an ‘R’ rating. Thinking of his audience, his reason was that if they weren’t there it would receive a ‘PG’ and teenagers would go and see it and be bored to death. With that sort of honesty and integrity, perhaps more of Hollywood should take note.

5 out of 6 stars