Gosford Park full movie review - We All Have Secrets.
There are directors who can direct huge, massive Cecil B. deMille epics like Peter Jackson. There are directors who have done nail-biting suspense, usually drenched in subtext, like the Director, Alfred Hitchcock.
There are others who can do whatever they want and create beautiful, detached yet powerful films like Stanley Kubrick. Then there are ones who are brilliant with ensembles, telling stories which converge and often overlap within a main plot. One of them is the great Woody Allen. The other one is Robert Altman.
GOSFORD PARK is an update of Jean Renoir's 1939 film LE REGLE DU JEU, in which wealthy relatives of an aristocrat come to a shooting party at a country home. Here, because of the obviously strained relationships between the host and his family has been less than amicable, it serves as a springboard where everyone's worst behavior and heretofore concealed feelings towards each other really come forth with an undertone of mean-spirited cruelty just brimming below the surface, while the servants act as non-entities when in their employers' presence but occasionally break into.
Boasting one of the best introduction sequences ever, itself lengthy but necessary, GOSFORD PARK is a tour-de-force of narration that recalls Jane Austen's work. We first see Mary Maceachran (Kelly MacDonald, playing innocence that becomes a keen observer), maid to Lady Constance Trentham (Dame Maggie Smith, having a splendid time in her role), and Lady Trentham's flighty demands and annoyed conversation as they make their way to Gosford Park. They cross paths with movie actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), his agent Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), and Weissman's protégé, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), who is the only one who doesn't introduce himself proper for reasons made clear later on, also heading towards the manor. The hellos are strained -- Lady Trentham is clearly not the friendly type --, but Mary is starstruck like the young girl she is. Once they (and the other guests) reach the house, activity is buzzing almost factory-like (factory being an important term here) as the housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren, taking self-control and omniscient stillness to a whole different level in a performance that has to be analyzed frame by frame), calmly gives out her orders. However, Altman, Fellowes, and Patrick Doyle bring a little extra dose to the scene the moment Robert Parks (Clive Owen) enters the picture and introduces himself to Mrs. Wilson while Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) passes them by and turns to hear. Not soon after, the camera makes a zoom into a bottle of poison: itself symbolic since immediately after that, the rest of the characters begin to show hints of their own shared "poison." Isobel McCordle (Camila Rutherford), William (Michael Gambon) and Sylvia McCordle's (Kristin Scott Thomas) daughter, is carrying on with Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) who is tied to a marriage of convenience to Mabel (Claudie Blakely) whom he feels ashamed of. The Stockbridges are also on the outs, Lord Raymond (Charles Dance) preferring the safety of "his own kind" according to Louisa Stockbridge (Geraldine Sommerville) who is one of William McCordle's many women. Mary learns of the McCordle's familial relation to Ivor Novello from fellow maid Elsie (Emily Watson) who, while staunchly expresses her near-hatred for Lady Sylvia, suggests ever-so-slightly she whom she prefers working for. A later scene reveals little love between the McCordles, William McCordle's repudiation of Lady Constance (and his threat of withdrawing her pension) and even less love between the Nesbitts, and even more tension between the Merediths (Tom Hollander and Natasha Wightman) as they try to con McCordle into some odd business. Greed, lust, and secrets, permeating every pore of Gosford Park and its inhabitants.
As a script (and a story written by Julian Fellowes), GOSFORD PARK is one of the most tightly and detailed ever committed to film because it forces the viewer to pay close attention to what characters are saying or suggesting to each other through their body language because everything has its own meaning; nothing is said or done to fulfill a plot requirement or for the sake of making conversation and even the most trivial hints are steps leading towards bigger and bigger denouements, primarily because the characters reveal in snippets pieces of information that tell us they know more about themselves than we do -- and this is its greatest asset. It is the equivalent of an abstract painting that upon scrutiny reveals layers and layers of what people dare not express up front and direct. This makes it, in fact, a delicious mystery and an open secret at the same time.
Death and its cause-effect, an element ever present in an Altman film, never looked more elegantly funny. In this movie, with death coming as a murder (or double-murder if you will) to a widely disliked character, only Louisa Stockbridge expresses concern and even then it's somewhat insincere. Altman has great fun exposing the crime scene, but even more fun introducing Stephen Fry as the largely inept investigator because while the truth is brandished right in front of his face under the form of the aforementioned "blink and miss" pieces of information we've been getting, he doesn't see it before we do.
GOSFORD PARK is also a meditation about an era where people who represent the exploited part of British society -- Robert Parks, Mrs. Wilson, Elsie --, and outsiders such as Mabel Nesbitt or Morris Weissman react against this caste system that seemed unmindful of the changes happening in the outside world. This doesn't necessarily solve anything or everything that occurs in GOSFORD PARK -- some plots are hinted at and that is fine -- but it does present an intricate comedy of manners of a time gone by just before WWII when Upstairs people mingled and shared their lives with the Downstairs people.