GOSFORD PARK (Blu-ray): A Maverick Mystery
Starring Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie, Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas, Emily Watson. Directed by Robert Altman. (2001/131 min).
To say Robert Altman is an acquired taste isn't really accurate. He's always been a bit of a maverick (to coin an overused label), but his career was so eclectic, polarizing and wildly inconsistent that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who professes a universal love for all of his work.
That being said, Gosford Park, if not the best of Altman's late-career films, is certainly one of his most enjoyable. Yet another ensemble piece, this is both a whodunit in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie and an examination of the upper vs. lower class system in Britain at the time the story takes place (between wars during the 1930s).
Wealthy, lecherous patriarch William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his snobbish wife, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), host a weekend get-together at their country mansion. Most of the guests are relatives, though screen idol (Ivor Novello) has also invited American movie producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban). Many of these characters are decidedly unpleasant folks who don't have a lot of love for McCordle, though some greatly depend on him. Concurrently, we also meet the underlings who make a living serving these folks, as seen through the eyes of inexperienced housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson). Interestingly, there's a hierarchy among the staff that's nearly as rigid and pretentious as the people they serve upstairs.
Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes spend the first hour masterfully establishing each player, so when McCordle is stabbed in his study by an unseen assailant, we can think of several characters who'd benefit from his death. Since all we see are the killer's shoes, we initially suspect it's one of the men. But in an ingenious complication, it's revealed that the actual cause of death was poisoning. Now everybody is a suspect and none of them, Sylvia included, seem too upset McCordle is dead. And we certainly can't depend on Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) to solve the case. He's a bumbling fool who amusingly appears to be more concerned with keeping his smarter constable in-check than trying to catch a killer.
Watching the story unfold –– including some remarkable character revelations –– reminded me how long it's been since I'd seen a good old fashioned English whodunit. While consistently unpredictable, the film can be slow-going at times, but compensates for the more meandering moments with elegant production design and striking cinematography.
Initially, one might not think someone like Robert Altman would be the right guy to helm a movie like this (which he conceived with actor Bob Balaban). Then again, he was always best when directing ensemble casts, skillfully juggling numerous major characters at once. And despite the relatively traditional story –– for him, anyway –– Altman still manages to spread some thematic layers in there, just in case he's accused of trying to make straight genre film.
Most importantly, though, Gosford Park is fun. Narratively intriguing and aesthetically gorgeous, this was Robert Altman's last good movie before his death and certainly one of the most accessible of his entire career. It's been given a nice 4K restoration by Arrow Films for Blu-ray, which also includes some new and archival bonus features. Ultimately, this is a good pick-up for both fans of the director and those who simply enjoy an intriguing mystery.