Richard E. Grant
Kristin Scott Thomas
2 Hrs., 16 Mins.
Gosford Park September 25, 2018
While Altman’s bent for the big never diminished per se, his returns, although dependably ambitious, were unsteadily cohesive. His antepenultimate movie, Gosford Park, though, is generally considered one of the limited instances of total coherence in his decades-long career — a latter-day gem bolstered by its improving on the filmmaker’s previous effort, 2000’s fun but slight Dr. T and the Women.
It is Gosford Park's genred pivoting that makes for its biggest point of intrigue. Whereas most but not all of Altman’s most well-regarded products are set in the modern-day, in an unvarnished America, this movie is affixed to November, 1932, and takes place in a lavish estate in the British countryside. The inundation of characters is both driven by the fact that the manor, owned by the new-moneyed McCordles (Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, and Camilla Rutherford), is animated by an upstairs-downstairs repartee, and because guests are staying over for the weekend.
The film, clocking at nearly two and a half hours, works with the set-in-stone Agatha Christie formula. Midway through the film, Sir McCordle is found dead in his study; he has been both stabbed and poisoned, though it is undetermined which action was the lethal one. What is known, however, is that there are at least two perpetrators, and that one or more of the guests — many of whom include society and Hollywood types — or a possibly indignant servant is responsible.
Gosford Park was written by Julian Fellowes (best known for his work on the six-season period melodrama Downton Abbey), whose screenplay expands on an idea by Altman and the actor Bob Balaban, who plays a film producer in the movie. The picture’s intent, clearly, was to both reuse and undermine the Christie blueprint. It maintains the basic conceit: Myriad glamourpusses are entwined in a murder mystery, with intriguing conversations and interrogations helping build toward an unexpected climax. But unorthodoxly, it’s more involved with the binds of its characters than the cloak-and-dagger clutter.
Propitiously, the people in this movie are fascinating. The film contains a number of multi-hyphenates and award winners, which is a natural bolsterer of interest in the first place, and the characters portrayed are comparatively engaging. I was especially enamored of Sir McCoble’s sister, the Maggie Smith-portrayed Countess Constance, who uses tartness as a mechanism to cover up her finances-induced worry. I also liked Helen Mirren’s pragmatic head housekeeper, who says things like "I am the perfect servant. I have no life” with such matter-of-factness that we cannot decide whether to pity or admire her. (Maybe both.)
Given how vividly these individuals are written and enlivened, I’m inclined to think that Altman and Balaban’s novel brainchild is far better than just an ingenious idea. Indeed, the characters are more enrapturing than the knife-and-poison-enforced pandemonium. The movie can even be moving, like when Mirren has a tearful catharsis at the end of the movie, or when the plucky downstairs person Mary (Kelly Macdonald) has a breakthrough during the investigation.
That said, Altman’s direction is faintly cold; his more-expectedly vibrant style might have been invigorating here, considering the tangible frostiness. The length impedes some of the urgency, too. But the taking-on, and eventual subversion, of a familiar style is admirable. And Altman, per usual, is thrillingly unafraid. B+
obert Altman’s most bulkily ensembled features often made for his most intimate. The eccentric filmmaker’s arguable best films, from Nashville (1975) to Short Cuts (1993), built off the personal (and sometimes connected) stories of 20 to 30 primary characters. Frequently, they managed to actualize humanistic ambitions with nuanced, Robert Olen Butler-like self-assurance, as if narrative maximalism was uncommonly able to enhance character-driven virtuosity.