Robert Altman’s Gosford Park ranks among the director’s greatest achievements, a cunning murder mystery that deftly explores the fading British class system before the outbreak of World War II.
The Production: 5/5
Just as Stanley Donen’s Charade is the greatest Hitchcock thriller not made by Alfred Hitchcock, so, too, is Robert Altman’s Gosford Park the greatest Agatha Christie mystery not penned by the queen of the genre. Instead, Gosford Park constitutes an advance on Mrs. Christie’s masterful puzzlers: a brilliant amalgamation of murder mystery and sociological examination of the class hierarchy in the fading ebbs of Olde England all tied together in a classy package of comic and dramatic character studies amid a murder inquiry that emphasizes not only the head but also the heart. It’s a mystery worthy of Dame Agatha but with an added poignancy that Mrs. Christie almost never achieved.
It’s November 1932 and self-involved, crusty Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his younger wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) are hosting a hunting weekend at their lavish estate Gosford Park. Present are three relatives all desperate for some of his money to further their business interests or to maintain their shaky places in society: the opinionated Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), the smarmy Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby), and the overwrought Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander). Also present are William’s partially deaf brother Raymond, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and stage and film star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) who has brought along Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) currently planning a Charlie Chan mystery set in London on a country estate. The servants of these upper crusters, Constance’s maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald), Stockbridge’s valet Robert Parks (Clive Owen), and Weissman’s valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), likewise attempt to ingratiate themselves into the hierarchy of downstairs life overseen by major domo Jennings (Alan Bates) and the feuding housekeeper and head cook Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) respectively. Once a murder is committed, it’s up to flea-brained Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) to try to sort it all out.
In all the years since the tremendous success of Downton Abbey with its complex Upstairs/Downstairs view of British society life before and after World War I, it’s easy to forget that Julian Fellowes’ Oscar-winning screenplay for Gosford Park was really the first time a film writer had delved this deeply into the intricacies of the events both below stairs and above stairs in a tale of the British aristocracy. And with the director Robert Altman on board, famous for his handling of large ensemble casts, it assured that Gosford Park would be in its day a one-of-a-kind undertaking. Using his trademark overlapping dialogue and steadily moving camera capturing bits and pieces of conversations in drawing rooms, at the dinner table, during the hunt, and in the maze of corridors and cramped spaces in the servants’ quarters in the large estate, Altman manages to cover all his bases both amusingly and dramatically though viewers must be astutely alert at all times since Fellowes’ lean script doesn’t often repeat information about characters or their backgrounds, all of which play vital roles in the mystery to come. The murder itself doesn’t occur until eighty minutes into the movie which gives Fellowes and Altman plenty of time to set up their crowded cast of characters, to display the various motives both overtly stated and subtly implied in various conversations, and place prime suspects out of view when the actual murder takes place. And if Altman’s mise-en-scene piles clues and suspects too compactly for some to experience satisfying edification on the first go-round, be assured that all is revealed in the film’s last quarter hour and that the mystery on repeated viewings is revealed as tightly plotted and marvelously shrewd in all respects.
In a cast this large (thirty-six primary speaking parts), it’s nearly impossible to single out every single actor worthy of praise, for they’re all wonderfully cast and superb in their work, but a special few are deserving of some special attention. Foremost is that prime scene stealer Maggie Smith whose Countess Trentham is full of wry, sometimes withering commentary on all around her while jockeying for the latest gossip from the servants and pleading for an increase in her living allowance. Emily Watson is lovely and lithesome as parlor maid Elsie, a special favorite of Michael Gambon’s gruff Sir William. Helen Mirren is the no-nonsense housekeeper with some heartbreaking secrets she’s sublimating while Kelly Macdonald’s freshly hired Scottish maid Mary Maceachran surprisingly turns out to be the film’s own Miss Marple, ferreting out clues and eventually putting it all together to solve the murder, miles ahead of the thick-headed Steven Fry’s Inspector Thompson, so plodding he can never even get his own name completely out of his mouth before some suspect or servant interrupts him. Clive Owen is dapper and introverted as the valet Robert Parks, Alan Bates is all spit and polish as the butler Jennings to whom all defer, and Bob Balaban is especially amusing as the out of place American thrust into a society who doesn’t appreciate what he does for a living and can barely abide his lack of grace or his singular attention span to his own narrow world. Best of all is Jeremy Northam who inhabits the real-life matinee idol Ivor Novello (all of the other characters in the story are fictional) with an appealing charm and plenty of charisma as he croons in a superb baritenor a series of lilting Ivor Novello ballads and patter numbers in the drawing room prior to the murder.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Compared to the previous Blu-ray release, Arrow’s new transfer, advertised as a new 2K restoration from a 4K scan, is a marked improvement in sharpness, clarity, color levels, and cleanliness. Looking quite film-like, images are warm and appealing above stairs with rich black levels and nice color saturation without any blooming. Dirt and other anomalies have been completely eliminated. The movie has been divided into 12 chapters.
The disc offers both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround and PCM 2.0 (2.3 Mbps) stereo tracks. Both sound very good with the slightest nod going to the 5.1 track. While surround envelopment isn’t always as astute as one might like, Patrick Doyle’s background score and the Ivor Novello tunes both sung and instrumentally played sound finely placed in the soundfield. Age-related problems with hiss and crackle are not present at all. Important dialogue is placed in the center channel while overlapping conversations sometimes go elsewhere to good effect.
Special Features: 5/5
Audio Commentaries: three are present for selection. The new one for this release features film historians Geoff Andrew and David Thompson which offers decent comment and analysis though it can’t begin to match screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ track for information and lively commentary on the filmmaking process. It’s the gem of the three. The third and least track offers director Robert Altman, son/production designer Stephen Altman, and producer David Levy commenting rather dully as the movie unfolds.
Executive Service (20:46, HD): producer Jane Barclay discusses her entry into the film business and details the tribulations and triumphs of getting the movie financed and her continued working relationship with Robert Altman through his next two films after Gosford Park.
Acting Upper Class (10:57, HD): actress Natasha Wightman who played Lady Lavinia Meredith shares memories of working on the film, only her third acting role.
The Making of Gosford Park (19:52, SD): vintage featurette detailing the production of the movie with director Robert Altman, producer David Levy, writer Julian Fellowes, and cast members including Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Jeremy Northam, Ryan Phillippe, Bob Balaban, and Kelly Macdonald.
The Authenticity of Gosford Park (8:40, SD): Robert Altman, Julian Fellowes, and David Levy discuss their use of a real-life butler, cook, and housekeeper during shooting to keep behaviors of the below stairs personnel as true-to-life as possible.
Q&A with Cast and Crew (25:01, SD): a question and answer session with cast and crew members at the Television Academy after the film’s Los Angeles screening and subsequent seven Oscar nominations. Present are Robert Altman, Julian Fellowes, David Levy, Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Northam, and Bob Balaban.
Deleted Scenes (20:04, HD): fifteen scenes are offered in montage form with optional commentary by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban.
Theatrical Trailer (1:55, HD)
Forty-three Page Booklet: offers cast and crew lists, a selection of beautiful stills and character portraits, critic Sheila O Malley’s thoughtful analysis of the movie, an interview with Robert Altman conducted by critic David Thomson, production notes on the film, and information about the restoration.
Reversible Cover Art
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park ranks among the director’s greatest achievements, a cunning murder mystery that deftly explores the fading British class system before the outbreak of World War II. This new Arrow release constitutes an inarguable upgrade on the previous Blu-ray release and comes with the highest recommendation.