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"GOSFORD PARK"
(2001) (Maggie Smith, Emily Watson) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: As their servants try to accommodate their every need, various socialites assemble for a shooting party that eventually leads to murder.
PLOT:
It's November 1932 and various family members and friends have descended upon Gosford Park - a sprawling country estate owned by Sir William McCordle (MICHAEL GAMBON) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS) -- for a shooting party. Among them is their daughter, Isobel (CAMILLA RUTHERFORD); her haughty great aunt, Constance (MAGGIE SMITH); and Sylvia's sisters Louisa (GERALDINE SOMERVILLE) and Lavinia (NATASHA WIGHTMAN) and their husbands, Raymond (CHARLES DANCE) and Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Meredith (TOM HOLLANDER).

Then there's Freddie Nesbitt (JAMES WILBY) who married Mabel (CLAUDIE BLAKLEY) only to discover that her family money was limited; Lord Rupert Standish (LAURENCE FOX) who's courting Isobel, and his friend Jeremy Blond (TRENT FORD); as well as Ivor Novello (JEREMY NORTHAM) a famous actor, and Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (BOB BALABAN) who makes Charlie Chan pictures.

Meanwhile, the "below stairs" staff of butlers, maids, cooks and valets try to make sure everything goes smoothly for their employers. Among them is Jennings (ALAN BATES), the head butler who runs the manner with Mrs. Wilson (HELEN MIRREN), the housekeeper. Mrs. Croft (EILEEN ATKINS) runs the kitchen and doesn't get along with Mrs. Wilson, while Elsie (EMILY WATSON) is the head housemaid who's having an affair with Sir William.

She takes Mary Maceachran (KELLY MACDONALD), Constance's maid who's new to serving others, under her wing and shows her the ropes that includes ignoring the peccadilloes of other staffers such as Bertha (TERESA CHURCHER) who's occasionally caught in compromising positions. Meanwhile, visiting valets Robert Parks (CLIVE OWEN) and Henry Denton (RYAN PHILLIPPE) - who work for Raymond and Morris respectively - have aroused different reactions from the rest of the staff. While some of them, such as first footman George (RICHARD E. GRANT) become increasingly suspicious of Henry, Robert's guarded comments on growing up in an orphanage elicit some sympathy from the others.

None of that emotion is directed at Sir William, however, as most don't like or get along with him. Not surprisingly, tensions mount and someone ends up dead, resulting in the arrival of buffoonish Inspector Thompson (STEPHEN FRY) and his more efficient assistant, Constable Dexter (ROB WEBSTER) who investigate the murder.

As they attempt to discover exactly what led up to the act and the identity of who's responsible, the various members of the above and below-stairs worlds react to that and their various personal issues.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Although most filmmakers helm pictures in a variety of genres, some are known mainly for delving into just a few or directing certain styles of films. Accordingly and regarding the latter fact, it would be interesting to see acclaimed director Robert Altman tackle a film such as "Cast Away."

After, the man responsible for films such as "M*A*S*H," "Nashville" and "The Player" is known for the large ensemble of performers he assembles for his works and their overlapping dialogue and/or individual character plotlines.

While we may never know what he would have done with just Tom Hanks deserted on a desert isle - although perhaps he would have included more sports balls with which Chuck Noland could have carried on various, simultaneous conversations - Altman is up to his old tricks again in "Gosford Park."

Part "Upstairs, Downstairs," part Agatha Christie, and part Merchant-Ivory costume drama, this period murder mystery is teeming with characters. There are so many, in fact, that one nearly needs a scorecard, family tree printout or guest list to keep track of all of them.

While that may be a negative to some viewers, fans of the director's typical work will probably enjoy what's offered here. Namely, that's the portrayal of the interaction between and within social classes at a British estate in the 1930s. Somewhat like "Upstairs, Downstairs," the film splits its time between the rich and elite and the working class servants who wait on them.

The sheer number of characters prevents most of them and their stories from getting as much screen time as they deserve and/or need, particularly in regards to any of us really caring for or sympathizing with them and their particular quandaries. Yet, we still get enough of a taste of them - and the performers breathe enough life into them - to enjoy what's offered.

Among some of the more interesting and/or engaging characters is Constance, terrifically played by Maggie Smith ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Tea With Mussolini"), who has an entertaining way of acting or speaking in enough of a haughty, British tone to disguise or at least temper her elitist and condescending attitude toward others. Then there's Emily Watson ("Trixie," "Hilary and Jackie") in another solid performance as the head housemaid with a secret, Michael Gambon ("Charlotte Gray," "The Insider") as the surly lord of the manor, and Helen Mirren ("Teaching Mrs. Tingle," 'The Madness of King George") as the head housekeeper.

Of course, they and the rest of the cast are present as smaller parts of the greater social satire and murder mystery plot development that occurs more than halfway through the film. While that latter element has tinges of Agatha Christie - what with the period setting among the privileged masses - those expecting a fabulously constructed or entertaining whodunit are apt to be disappointed to one degree or another.

Although I understand that the murder mystery bit is not designed to be the film's sole purpose or big pivotal element, the way in which it's presented here by actor-turned-screenwriter Julian Fellowes (making his feature film debut) is somewhat of a letdown. That's not only because many of the would-be suspects are accounted for during the murder, but also because there's not enough buildup regarding the remaining suspects and/or motives for them to commit the crime.

The fun of such films is usually in trying to guess the identity of the guilty party based on the delivered clues, but most of that's conspicuously absent here. In addition, the eventual disclosure of the murderer's identity and reasons for the crime aren't anything particularly amazing or noteworthy, while the introduction of Stephen Fry ("A Civil Action," "Wilde") as a buffoonish, Clouseau-type inspector feels out of place. The same holds true for some other late in the game developments and revelations that may tie up some loose ends, but don't feel completely congruous with the dramedy approach that Altman has utilized and/or created for the rest of the picture.

The film does excel, however, in capturing that overall Merchant-Ivory feel and aura, what with the terrific production design, costuming and cinematography, all of which are first rate. Notwithstanding the comparatively weak and not entirely involving story, such accolades also hold true for the casting and most of the performances.

Teeming with terrific performers such as Kristin Scott Thomas ("Life as a House," "Up at the Villa"), Jeremy Northam ("The Golden Bowl," "An Ideal Husband"), Richard E. Grant ("The Little Vampire," "The Portrait of a Lady") and Eileen Atkins ("The Avengers," "Wolf"), the film certainly comes preloaded with a fine thespian pedigree.

It's their presence and Altman's portrayal and observation of the differences and similarities between the upstairs and downstairs worlds of old that make the film worth seeing. Although it would have been more enjoyable and entertaining with a better script, fans of the director's large ensemble offerings will probably appreciate what's offered here. Good, but certainly not one of Altman's better or more memorable works, "Gosford Park" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 11, 2001 / Posted January 4, 2002


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