Even though he’d been working constantly in the decades since we met him last, it’s odd to think that we haven’t seen director Robert Altman on the blog since the 1970s. Although he continued to make ensemble pieces that were critically lauded, the Academy never honoured one of his films after Nashville. That was until the 2002 ceremony when one of Altman’s final movies was nominated for several Oscars and even picked up a Best Screenplay award. However, if you didn’t know who was calling the shots, you may be mistaken for not knowing that Gosford Park was an Altman film at all.
That’s because, unlike the Altman films I’ve seen up to this point, Gosford Park was a very British movie set in the titular estate. The film began life as an idea that actor Bob Balaban, one of the only Americans in the cast, had and pitched it to Altman. After introducing Altman to screenwriter Julian Fellowes; the three decided to create an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Like previous Christie adaptations; Fellowes’ film featured plenty of characters who had motivations to finish off the arrogant Sir William McCordle. Those on the guest list include his aunt Duchess Trentham, his sisters and brother-in-laws as well as his daughter’s suitor. What makes Fellowes’ country house script stand out from the crowd is that it follows the downstairs servants as much as it does their masters. As Sir William had a penchant for affairs with his maids there were one or two grudges leaking below stairs so it’s no surprise when he’s found poisoned and stabbed at the end of the film’s second act. Whilst the oafish Inspector Thompson attempts to solve the murder; Duchess Trentham’s lady’s maid Mary does a better job herself. From the start of the film, Mary becomes our surrogate as she is new to the service industry and doesn’t know her way around Gosford Park. However, mainly based on listening in to various pieces of gossip, Mary works out who it was that both poisoned and stabbed the victim. Whilst we don’t ultimately know whether the culprits will get arrested, I found the ending to be an interesting twist where the murderer was presented in a more sympathetic light than the victim.
Although the two share no similarities when it comes to their setting, both Nashville and Gosford Park had similar story structures. Both feature numerous subplots that tie together by the end of the film which, in the case of Gosford Park, happens when the murderer is revealed. Like Nashville, not all of Gosford Park’s side stories work and as a result some of the characters were surplus to requirements. I got the feeling that Fellowes and Altman had a lot more time for the servants than they did for their masters. That’s why I felt that Helen Mirren’s housekeeper, Eileen Atkin’s cook and the two maids played by Emily Watson and Kelly MacDonald were possibly the most sympathetic characters of the bunch. Mirren gave a particularly memorable turn as the housekeeper who had given up everything in order to be the perfect servant. Mirren was nominated in the Supporting Actress category alongside co-star Maggie Smith who looked like she was having a hoot at portraying Duchess Trentham.
However some of the other members of the cast were less lucky with the parts they were handed with Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance and Richard E. Grant three examples of actors with thankless roles. Fellowes’ script was nicely paced with the suspects being build up gradually until the murder itself finally occurred. One element of the film I didn’t like was the introduction of Stephen Fry’s incompetent detective who threatened to turn a likeable drama into a farce. I’m not sure why Altman and Fellowes thought that they needed to change the tone of the film but Thompson’s arrival did nothing for me. What makes Gosford Park so likeable is its witty script coupled with some lovely shots of the British countryside by cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Whilst it never has any particular Earth-shattering revelations to make, Gosford Park is still an entertaining watch that includes a fine ensemble cast. It’s just a shame that Altman isn’t still around making films like this as he sadly passed away in 2006.