March 29, 2002 – Just because you adore film director Robert Altman doesn't necessarily mean "Gosford Park" is your cup of tea. Nor, if you happen not to like the film director's work, should you necessarily stay away.
This is the quintessential "period piece," with magnificent sets, extravagant costuming, a smug post-war/pre-war patina and outrageous posturing by an ensemble cast that's to die for. As one of its number does midway through the movie.
The film's action, such as it is, takes place in 1932 at Gosford, the English country estate of Sir William McCordle and his considerably younger wife, Lady Sylvia, who have invited friends, family, a matinee idol and a visiting Yankee film producer to a weekend hunting party. The hunt itself — for men only, of course — is rather an afterthought in the three-day excursion through the "upstairs" and "downstairs" halls and pitfalls of the manor life.
It's hard to care much about any of the characters among either the gentry or those "in service," but that may be in large part because American ears need half the running time to get attuned to all those multiple-class U.K. accents, at least one of which, it turns out, is fake. Perhaps for this reason, the highest humor comes from Bob Balaban — who co-conceived the film with Altman — as the Hollywood maker of "Charlie Chan" movies who is in England to scout out locations for his next picture. There were no cellular phones in 1932, but if there had been, this guy would have walked with at least two.
Altman's take on England in that era is that everybody, high and humble, smokes cigarettes — except for a buffoonish police inspector who smokes a pipe, or would if he could keep it lighted. Altman also seems to have concluded that the f-word was the standard expletive among both upper and lower classes; while it's never been heard in an authentic '30s film, it's all over the place in "Gosford Park."
Although the cast includes two real-life "Sirs" and two real "Dames," most of the actors, aside from Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren (both nominated for best supporting actress Oscars) and Alan Bates, are not that familiar to U.S. audiences. Most impressive are Kelly Macdonald, who plays the in-service ingenue; Clive Owen, her romantic interest; and Emily Watson, as a savvy and free-thinking maid. Kristin Scott Thomas is stunning as a Dietrich lookalike. And give Ryan Philippe a few more outings like this (as the film producer's Scottish manservant, or so it seems) and he'll have Leo DiCaprio looking for work.
The film won the Oscar for best original screenplay. It was nominated for best film, as was Altman for best director. As to the story line, it doesn't much matter. The film is the best and the worst of "Upstairs/Downstairs" meets "Murder on the Orient Express," and it leaves off pretty much where it starts, "stiff upper lip" being the modus vivendi of the servants as well as those they serve — and sometimes service. If the denouement escapes you and you really care, you can always go back and see it a second time.
The film is rated R. It's playing at Market Square East.
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