Gosford Park (2001)

Gosford Park (2001)

A masterclass in narrative plate-spinning from Robert Altman and his feast of a cast

The Very Best

8.7

Movie

Italy, United States of America
English
Drama, Mystery, Thriller
2001
ROBERT ALTMAN
Adrian Scarborough, Alan Bates, Bob Balaban
137 min

TLDR

Subplots on subplots on subplots.

What it's about

During a shooting party at an English country estate, a man is murdered — twice — implicating both guests and domestic staff.

The take

Gosford Park inspired screenwriter Julian Fellowes to create Downton Abbey — but don’t let that association fool you, because this is no quaint, sentimental period drama but a scalding satire of 1930s England class relations (even though Maggie Smith does play a withering dowager countess here, too). Robert Altman, master orchestrator of ensembles, assembled a banquet of performers here, including Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Charles Dance as the well-to-do attendees of a hunting party on a grand estate. Working furiously to meet their every whim is the house’s domestic staff, played by such talents as Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, and Clive Owen.

The murder comes over an hour into the film, which ought to tell you about its real focus (Altman actually called Gosford Park a “who cares whodunnit”). In place of Agatha Christie-style intrigue is brilliant characterization and storytelling. Even at 137 minutes, 30-plus characters mean time is of the essence, but Altman and his actors miraculously find a way to convey a deep sense of each person — especially those downstairs. This tangle of rich lives never gets overwhelming, though, because Gosford Park is expertly paced. It’s nothing less than a joy to sit back and experience the masterful unraveling of its many threads, each more revelatory than the last.

What stands out

There’s really no overselling just how much story Gosford Park tells, and how telling these elements are of the social dynamics of the period. The film doesn’t silo its many dramas into upstairs-versus-downstairs vacuums, but weaves them together in a way that tells us more about the callously manipulative, utterly incapable upper class than 100 scenes of their bridge table conversations would. What’s more, the domestic staff — who are cruelly dismissed as “nobodies” by one of the guests — get the thoughtful treatment they deserve out of this approach, as Altman lays bare not just the suffering they endure as a knock-on effect of their employers’ selfishness but also their resilience and the myriad pleasures they steal under their noses.

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