Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

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“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015) Review

 

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015) Review

Ever since I gave up reading the “NANCY DREW” novels at the age of thirteen, I have been a fan of those written by Agatha Christie. And that is a hell of a long time. In fact, my fandom toward Christie’s novels have extended toward the film and television adaptations. Among those stories that have captured my imagination were the adaptations of the author’s 1939 novel, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”

To be honest, I have seen at least three adaptations of the 1939 novel – the 1945, 1966 and 1974 adaptations – before I had read the novel. Although I found some of the novel’s aspects a bit troubling – namely its original title and minimal use of racial slurs, overall I regard it as one of Christie’s best works . . . if not my favorite. After viewing three cinematic adaptations, I saw the BBC’s recent adaptation that aired back in December 2015 as a three-part miniseries.

I noticed that “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was the first adaptation I have seen that more or less adhered to the novel’s original novel. But it was not the first one that actually did. One of the most famous versions that stuck to the original ending before the 2015 miniseries was the Soviet Union’s 1987 movie called “DESYAT NEGRITYAT”. However, I have never seen this version . . . yet. Anyone familiar with Christie’s novel should know the synopsis. Eight strangers are invited by a mysterious couple known as Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen for the weekend at Soldier Island, off the coast of Devon, England in early August 1939. Well . . . not all of them were invited as guests. Waiting for them is a couple who had been recently hired by the Owens to serve as butler and cook/maid. The weekend’s hosts fail to show up and both the guests and the servants notice the ten figurines that serve as a centerpiece for the dining room table. Following the weekend’s first dinner, the guests and the two servants listen to a gramophone record that accuses each of them with a crime for which they have not been punished. The island’s ten occupants are:

*Dr. Edward Armstrong – a Harley Street doctor who is accused of killing a patient on the operating table, while under the influence of alcohol

*William Blore – a former police detective hired to serve as security for the weekend, who is accused of killing a homosexual in a police cell

*Emily Brent – a religious spinster who is accused of being responsible for the suicide of her maid by abandoning the latter when she became pregnant out of wedlock

*Vera Claythorne – a games mistress hired to serve as Mrs. Owen’s temporary secretary, who is accused of murdering the young boy for whom she had served as a governess

*Philip Lombard – a soldier-of-fortune also hired to serve as security for the weekend, who is accused of orchestrating the murder of 21 East Africans for diamonds

*General John MacArthur – a retired British Army officer accused of murdering a fellow officer, who was his wife’s lover during World War I

*Anthony Marston – a wealthy playboy accused of killing two children via reckless driving

*Ethel Rogers – the maid/cook hired by the Owens, who is accused with her husband of murdering their previous employer

*Thomas Rogers – the butler hired by the Owens, who is accused with his wife of murdering their previous employer

*Justice Lawrence Wargrave – a retired judge accused of murdering an innocent man by manipulating the jury and sentencing him to hang

Shortly after listening to the gramophone, one member of the party dies from poisoning. Following this first death, more people are murdered via methods in synonymous with a nursery rhyme from which the island is named. The murderer removes a figurine from the dining table each time someone is killed. The island’s remaining occupants decide to work together and discover the murderer’s identity before time runs out and no one remains.

From the numerous articles and reviews I have read about the miniseries, I came away with the impression that many viewers and critics approved of its adherence to Christie’s original ending. And yet . . . it still had plenty of changes from the story. The nature of the crimes committed by five or six of the suspects had changed. According to one flashback, Thomas Rogers had smothered (with his wife Ethel looking on) their elderly employer with a pillow, instead of withholding her medicine. General MacArthur literally shot his subordinate in the back of the head, instead of sending the latter to a doomed military action during World War I. Beatrice Taylor, the pregnant girl who had committed suicide, was an orphan in this production. Lombard and a handful of his companions had literally murdered those 21 East Africans for diamonds, instead of leaving them to die with no food or other supplies. And William Blore had literally beaten his victim to death in a jail cell, because the latter was a homosexual. In the novel, Blore had simply framed his victim for a crime, leading the latter to die in prison. I have mixed feelings about some of these changes.

By allowing General MacArthur to literally shoot his wife’s lover, instead of sending the latter to his death in a suicidal charge, I found myself wondering how he got away with this crime. How did MacArthur avoid suspicion, let alone criminal prosecution, considering that Arthur Richmond was shot in the back of the head in one of the trenches? How did the murderer find out? Why did Thomas Rogers kill his employer? For money? How did the couple avoid criminal prosecution, if their employer was smothered with a pillow? Even police forensics back then would have spotted death by smothering. I understand why Phelps had made Beatrice Taylor an orphan. In this scenario, Emily Brent would have been the only one with the authority to reject Beatrice. But what about the latter’s lover? Why did the murderer fail to go after him. And how did Blore evade charges of beating a prisoner to death inside a jail cell? None of his fellow officers had questioned his actions? And if they had kept silent, this made them accessories to his crime. Then why did the murderer fail to go after them, since he or she was willing to target Ethel Rogers for being an accessory to her husband’s crime?

One character that went through something of a major change was Philip Lombard. His aggressiveness and predatory nature remained intact. But for some reason, screenwriter Sarah Phelps had decided to transfer his bigotry to both Emily Brent and William Blore. The screenplay seemed to hint through Lombard’s comments that if those 21 men had been Europeans instead of Africans, he still would have murdered them to get his hand on those diamonds. In fact, he went even further with a tart comment to Miss Brent by accusing European religious fanatics of being more responsible for the deaths of Africans than the military or mercenaries like himself. It was Blore who used a racist slur to dismiss Lombard’s crime. And it was Miss Brent, instead of Lombard, who insulted the mysterious Mr. Owens’ intermediary, Isaac Morris, with an anti-Semetic slur. I can only wonder why Phelps deemed it necessary to transfer Lombard’s bigotry to two other characters.

There were some changes that did not bother me one bit. Certain fans complained about the presence of profanity in this production . . . especially the use of ‘fuck’ by at least two or three characters, who seemed like the types who would use these words. Mild profanity has appeared in previous Christie novels and adaptations. And the word ‘fuck’ has been around since the Sixteenth Century. I really had no problem with this. Phelps also included lesbian tendencies in Emily Brent’s character. There were some complaints about this change. Personally, I had no problem with it. This change added dimension to Miss Brent’s decision to cast out Beatrice Taylor, when the latter ended up pregnant. Episode Three featured a party scene with the four surviving guests in which they indulged in booze and Anthony Marston’s drugs to relieve their anxiety over their situation. It was not included in Christie’s novel, but I thought the scene did a great job in showing the psychological impact upon the remaining characters . . . especially for Dr. Armstrong, who went into a drunken rant over the horrors he had witnessed in World War I.

Watching “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” left me with the feeling of watching some kind of early 20th century Nordic thriller. I have to credit both the producers, director Craig Viveiros, production designer Sophie Becher and cinematographer John Pardue. What I found interesting about the miniseries’ visual style is the hint of early 20th century Art Deco featured in the house’s interior, mixed with this gloomy atmosphere that truly represented the production’s violent and pessimistic tale. Everything visual aspect of this production seemed to literally scream death and doom. Even the production’s sound department did an outstanding job in contributing the story’s atmosphere, especially in those episode that featured the storm that prevented the survivors from making an attempt to leave the island. I also enjoyed Lindsay Pugh, whose costumes did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions of the late 1930s. More importantly, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was not some opportunity for a Thirties’ fashion show, but a more realistic look at how British middle-class dressed on the eve of World War II. My only complaint is the hairstyle worn by actress Maeve Darmody, who portrayed Vera Claythorne. I am referring to the long bob worn by Vera in her 1935 flashbacks, which struck me as a bit too long for that particular year.

Many have complimented both Sarah Phelps and Craig Viveiros for closely adhering to the moral quagmire of Christie’s tale. Each or most of the characters are forced to consider the consequences of their actions and their guilt. If I have to be brutally honest, I have to compliment the pair as well. At first I was inclined to criticize the production’s three hour running time, which I originally believed to be a tad too long. But now I see that the running time gave Viveiros and Phelps the opportunity more in-depth explorations of the characters – especially Vera, Blore, Miss Brent and General MacArthur. This was done through a series of flashbacks for most of the characters. I said . . . most. There were some characters that hardly received any flashbacks – especially the Rogers, Anthony Marston, Edward Armstrong and Philip Lombard. I could understand the lack of many flashbacks for one or two characters, but I would have liked to see more for Rogers, Dr. Armstrong and Lombard. Especially Lombard. I never understood why he only had one flashback that vaguely hinted his murders without his victims being seen.

On the other hand, I was more than impressed with the production’s exploration of Vera, Blore, Miss Brent, Mrs. Rogers and General MacArthur’s crimes. Both Phelps and Viveiros seemed to have went through a great deal of trouble to explore their backgrounds and crimes. In the case of Mrs. Rogers, the production did not really explore the crime of which she and her husband were accused. But the miniseries did spend some time in Episode One focusing on the consequences she had suffered from her husband’s crime . . . and I found that more than satisfying. I enjoyed how General MacArthur, Miss Brent and Blore had initially refused to acknowledge their crimes . . . and how the growing death count and the possibility of their own deaths led them to finally face their guilt, whether out loud or internally. I found General MacArthur’s acknowledgement of guilt very satisfying, for it culminated in that famous line regarding the characters’ fate:

“No one’s coming for us. This is the end.”

From a dramatic point of view, the most satisfying character arc proved to be the one that belonged to Vera Claythorne. She is not my favorite character . . . at least not in this production. Nor did I regard her as the story’s most interesting character. But I thought Phelps and Viveiros did a hell of a job handling her character arc. Vera struck me as the type who went through a great deal of effort to hide her true nature via a respectable facade. Actually, the other characters share this same trait. Judging from what I have seen from this production, no one seemed to do it better than one Vera Claythorne. I suspect most people would be hard pressed to believe that this attractive and intelligent woman would deliberately lead a young boy to his death. Like I said, I did not particularly regard Vera as the story’s most interesting character. But I do believe that Phelps and Viveiros handled her story arc with more depth and mystery than any of the other characters . . . and with more flashbacks.

While reading several articles about “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”, I noticed that many had placed emphasis on the characters’ guilt and the possibility of them facing judgment for their actions. In a way, their opinions on this topic reminded me of why the murderer had set up the whole house party in the first place. Then I remembered that the murderer had also used the house party to indulge in his or her blood lust. And the killer used the guilt of the other inhabitants to excuse the murders . . . in his or her mind. This made me wonder about society’s desire for others to pay for their sins. Especially sins that involved death. Is society’s desire for killers to pay for their crimes a disguise . . . or excuse for its own blood lust? Like I said . . . I wonder.

What else can I discuss about “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”? Oh yes. The performances. The miniseries featured a collection of well known actors and actresses from several English speaking countries, especially Great Britain. I must admit that I may have vaguely heard of Douglas Booth, but I have never seen him in any particular role, until this production. But I must say that I found his portrayal of rich playboy Anthony Marston very impressive. Booth did a beautiful job in capturing the selfish and self-indulgent nature of the young elite. I wish Anna Maxwell-Martin had a bigger role in this production. However, I had to be satisfied with her performance as Ethel Rogers, who had been hired to serve as maid and cook for the Owens’ house party. I thought she was excellent as the bullied wife of Soldier Island’s butler, Thomas Rogers. I was also impressed by Noah Taylor, who gave a first-rate performance as Rogers, who hid his brutish nature with the facade of a servile man. I only wish that Phelps had not made the same mistake as Christie – namely failing to get into Rogers’ mind. I think Taylor could have rolled with such material. Miranda Richardson gave a masterful performance as the prim and hypocritical Emily Brent, who hid her own passions and sins with a stream of moral pronouncements. Her performance culminated in that wonderful moment when her character finally acknowledged her role in that young maid’s suicide. One of my favorite performances came from Sam Neill, who portrayed the very respectful retired Army officer, General John MacArthur. Neill had claimed that this particular performance was not a stretch for him, since MacArthur reminded him of his own father. But I thought the actor’s performance rose above that assessment, as his character not only faced his guilt for a crime of passion, but also faced the realization of his impending death.

On the surface, Charles Dance’s portrayal of retired judge Lawrence Wargrave seemed like many roles he had portrayed in recent years – cool, elegant and a little sharp. But I really enjoying watching him convey Wargrave’s subtle reactions to the temperamental outbursts from the other inhabitants. And I found his skillful expression of Wargrave’s emotional reactions to memories of the man the character was accused of killing via an execution sentence really impressive.“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” marked the third time I have seen Toby Stephens in an Agatha Christie adaptation. Of the three productions, I regard his work in this miniseries and the 2003 television movie, “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” as among his best work. Stephens did a superb job in developing . . . or perhaps regressing Dr. Edward Armstrong’s character from this pompous Harley Street physician to a nervy and frightened man by the third episode. Thanks to Stephens’ performance, I also became aware that the character’s alcoholism and tightly-wound personality was a result of the horrors he had faced during World War I.

Ever since I first saw 2012’s “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”, I have become aware of Burn Gorman. He is one of the most unusual looking actors I have ever seen . . . and a first-rate actor. I really enjoyed his portrayal of former police detective William Blore as this slightly shifty man with a penchant for allowing his paranoia to get the best of him, as the body count rose. Although his Blore comes off as a rather unpleasant man, Gorman still managed to inject some sympathy into the character as the latter finally faces his guilt over the young homosexual man he had beaten to death. Most of the critics and fans seemed to be more interested in Aidan Turner’s physique than his performance as soldier-of-fortune, Philip Lombard. I feel this is a shame, because I thought he gave an excellent performance as the shady and pragmatic mercenary, willing to do anything to stay alive . . . or have sex with Vera Claythorne. What really impressed me about Turner’s performance is that he is the second actor to perfectly capture the animalistic and aggressive Lombard as described in Christie’s novel, and the first English-speaking actor to do so. The miniseries’ producers had some difficulty in finding the right actress to portray Vera Claythorne. In the end, they managed to find Australian actress Maeve Darmody six days before filming started. And guess what? They made a perfect choice. Darmody was superb as the cool and intelligent Vera, who is the first to connect the “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”. I thought some of screenwriter Sarah Phelps’ changes to Agatha Christie’s tale did not exactly work for me. But despite a few flaws, I have to commend both her and director Craig Viveiros for doing an excellent job in translating Christie’s most celebrated and brutal tale to the television screen. And they were ably assisted by superb performances from a very talented all-star cast. This is one Christie production I can watch over and over again.

“THE IMITATION GAME” (2014) Review

“THE IMITATION GAME” (2014) Review

One of the more critically acclaimed movies to hit the movie screens in 2014 was “THE IMITATION GAME”, a loose adaptation of the 1983 biography, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”. The movie focused upon the efforts of British cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, who decrypted German intelligence codes for the British government during World War II.

I never saw “THE IMITATION GAME” while it was in the theaters during the winter of 2014-2015. After seeing it on DVD, I regret ever ignoring it in the first place. Then again, I was ignoring a good number of films during that year. I have been aware of two previous movies about the United Kingdom’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during World War II. But “THE IMITATION GAME” came closer to historical accuracy than the other two films. Is it completely accurate? No. There were a good deal of the usual complaints from historians and academics about the film’s historical accuracy. But you know what? Unless I find such inaccuracy too ridiculous to swallow or it failed to serve the story, I honestly do not care.

I do have a complaint or two about “THE IMITATION GAME”. The movie began with Turing being arrested by the police, because the arresting officer in question thought he was a Soviet spy. I found it odd that this Detective Nock had decided to question Turing on his own, instead of reporting the latter to MI-6. More bizarre is the fact that during interrogation, Turing told the police detective about his work, which should have been classified.

And during my first viewing of “THE IMITATION GAME”, I had assumed the film would be more about Turing’s homosexuality than his role in breaking the Germans’ Enigma code. After all, the movie began in 1951, when Turing was arrested for suspicion of espionage (due to his lack of a war record) and eventually charged for practicing homosexuality. But the movie focused a lot more on his work at Bletchley Park. His homosexuality did have some impact on the movie’s narrative – Turing’s memories of his schoolboy friendship with a boy named Christopher Morcom and his fears of his homosexuality being discovered. But the screenplay failed to explore the one potentially powerful aspect of his homosexuality in the story – namely his 1951 arrest and the chemical castration he underwent to avoid prison. Instead, the event was merely used as an epilogue for the movie and I found that rather disappointing.

Otherwise, I enjoyed “THE IMITATION GAME” very much. Screenwriter Graham Moore created an otherwise powerful look at Turing and his work at Bletchley Park. Moore took great care to explore the cryptanalyst’s complex personality and its affect upon Turing’s colleagues and his friend, Joan Clarke. I especially enjoyed Turing’s friendship with Clarke and how she eventually helped him bond somewhat closer with his exasperated colleagues. Moore’s screenplay also did an excellent job of exploring Turing’s work at Bletchley Park in great detail. This exploration revealed something that took me completely by surprise – namely his creation of an electromechanical machine that helped break the Enigma code. Due to his work on this machine, Turing has become known as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Moore ended up winning a much deserved Best Adapted Screenplay for his work.

But not even a first-rate screenplay can guarantee a winning film. Fortunately for Graham Moore, Morten Tyldum signed up as the film’s director. Who is Morten Tyldum? He is a Norwegian director who is highly acclaimed in his native country. And I thought he did a great job in transferring Moore’s screenplay to the movie screen. It could have been easy for a movie like “THE IMITATION GAME”, which featured a great deal of dialogue and hardly any action, to put me to sleep. Thankfully, Tyldum’s direction was so well-paced and lively that he managed to maintain my attention to the very last reel. And I thought he juggled the occasional flashbacks to Turing’s schooldays and the 1951 scenes featuring the latter’s encounter with police Detective Nook with the World War II sequences very competently.

“THE IMITATION GAME” was also blessed with a first-rate cast. Benedict Cumberbatch earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the complex and brilliant Alan Turing. I really do not know what else to say about Cumberbatch’s performance other than marvel at how he made a superficially unlikable character seem very likable and more importantly, vulnerable. Keira Knightly earned her second Academy Award for portraying Joan Clarke, Turing’s closest friend and a brilliant cryptanalyst in her own right. One of Clarke’s relatives complained that Knightley was too good looking to be portraying the rather plain Clarke. It seemed a pity that this person was more concerned with the actress’ looks than her excellent and fierce portrayal of the intelligent Clarke, who proved to be a loyal friend of Turing’s and at the same time, refused to put up with some of his flaky behavior toward her.

The supporting cast included the likes of Matthew Goode, who gave a sharp and witty performance as cryptanalyst and analyst Hugh Alexander and Charles Dance as Commander Alastair Denniston, the the no-nonsense and unoriginal head of the codebreakers. It also featured solid performances from Allan Leech as John Cairncross, the soft-spoken codebreaker who proved to be a mole for the KGB; Rory Kinnear as Detective Nock, the inquisitive police inspector who learned about Turing’s war activities; and Mark Strong, who gave a very cool performance as Stewart Menzies, head of MI-6 between 1939 and 1952.

Yes, “THE IMITATION GAME” had its flaws. I feel that the film’s flaws came from the 1951 sequences in which Alan Turing found himself arrested by the police. Otherwise, I really enjoyed screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum look into the life of the famous cryptanalyst. I also have to give credit to a cast led by a brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley for making this film not only enjoyable, but also fascinating.

“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

gosford_park

 

“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

In 1999, actor Bob Balaban had approached director Robert Altman with the idea of developing a film together. Altman suggested a whodunit set at an English country estate. The two approached actor/writer Julian Fellowes if he could take their concept and write a screenplay. Their collective efforts resulted in the 2001 comedy-drama, “GOSFORD PARK”.

In the movie, a group of wealthy Britons, a British actor/entertainer, an American movie producer and their servants gather at Gosford Park, the country estate of a wealthy industrialist named Sir William McCordle, for a shooting party over the weekend. Sir William is not a popular man. His wife and most of his in-laws despise him. And most of his servants (aside from one or two) dislike him. When Sir William is found murdered inside his study during the second night of the weekend, there seemed to be a list of suspects who have a very good reason to kill him:

*Lady Sylvia McCordle – Sir William’s bitchy wife, who despises him and had married Sir William for his money

*Commander Anthony Meredith – One of Sir William’s brothers-in-law, who is desperate for the industrialist’s financial backing in a venture regarding shoes for Sudanese soldiers

*Raymond, Lord Stockbridge – Sir William’s snobbish brother-in-law, whose wife might be having an affair with him

*Lady Lavinia Meredith – Sir William’s younger sister-in-law and devoted wife to Commander Meredith

*Mrs. Croft – Gosford Park’s head cook and former employee at one of Sir William’s factories, who despised him

*Mrs. Wilson – Gosford Park’s housekeeper, Mrs. Croft younger sister and another former employee of one of Sir William’s factories

*Lord Rupert Standish – a penniless aristocrat who wants to overcome Sir William’s opposition and marry his only child, Isobel McCordle

*Constance, Countess of Trentham – Sir William’s aunt-in-law, who is dependent upon a regular allowance from him

The weekend party include other guests and servants, such as:

*Mary Maceachran – Lady Trentham’s lady maid

*Elsie – Head housemaid whom Mary befriended, and who was definitely having an affair with Sir William

*Ivor Novello – Famous actor/singer and Sir William’s cousin

*Morris Weissman – Producer from Fox Studios

*Henry Denton – Weissman’s valet, who is actually a Hollywood minor actor studying for an upcoming role

*Robert Parks – Lord Stockbridge’s new valet

*Jennings – Major domo of Gosford Park, who has a secret to hide

*Honorable Freddie Nesbitt – A local impoverished aristocrat who had earlier seduced Isobel. At the shooting party, he tries to blackmail her into convincing Sir William to give him a job

*Mabel Nesbitt – The daughter of a self-made glove manufacturer whom Freddie married for her money, before spending the latter.

*Louisa, Lady Stockbridge – Sir William’s other sister-in-law, with whom he might have had an affair

*Probert – Sir William’s personal valet and one of the few who actually grieved him.

Needless to say, the list of characters is a long one. Following Sir William’s murder, the local police in the form of one Inspector Thompson and Constable Dexter arrive to solve the murder. Being incompetent and a complete snob, Inspector Thompson seemed to regard the higher class guests as worthy suspects for the murder of Sir William. Constable Dexter, on the other hand, seemed more interested in Jennings’ World War I past and the clues at hand. In fact, Dexter managed to ascertain that Sir William had been poisoned by one person, before another drove an ax into his back. But it was lady’s maid Mary Maceachran who managed to figure out the culprits in the end.

I cannot deny that after ten years or so, “GOSFORD PARK” remains a big favorite of mine. When the movie first reached the movie screens in December 2001, many admitted to enjoying the film, but predicted that it would age with time. There are perhaps some critics who believe this has actually happened. But I do not agree. Considering the increasingly bleak social landscape of today, I believe that the theme behind “GOSFORD PARK” has remained relevant as ever. Despite my love for the film, would I consider it perfect? Honestly? No. Other critics may be able to find more than two flaws in the film. On the other hand, I was able to find two that bothered me.

The pacing for most of “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be on spot . . . at least for me. It possessed a great set-up for introducing the characters, the setting’s atmosphere and the revelation of the suspects’ motives for wanting Sir William dead. However, the murder did not occur until two-thirds into the movie. Once Inspector Thompson appeared on the scene, the movie’s pacing began to drag. And it did not pick up again until the movie’s last twenty minutes. For me, the pacing during the last third of the film struck me as merely a minor flaw. There was another that proved to be a bigger one for me – namely the Henry Denton character.

I have nothing against Ryan Phillipe’s performance as Denton. Trust me, I thought he did a superb job. But Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of the character left me shaking my head in confusion. According to the script, Denton was an American actor for Fox Studios who accompanied Morris Weissman as his Scottish valet in order to study British servants for a role in a “CHARLIE CHAN” movie. This little deception strikes me as something actors did for a role during the past thirty or forty years . . . certainly not in 1932. The deception ended when Henry admitted his true identity to the police. But the one thing that really disturbed me about the character was his attempted rape of Mary Maceachran during the first night of the weekend. Why did Fellowes include that scenario in the first place? Henry had already made a date for some nocturnal activity with Lady Sylvia McCordle, several minutes earlier. If he had already scheduled a night for sex with the mistress of the house, why have him assault Mary a few mintues later? I suspect that Fellowes wanted to establish a character that most of the characters – aristocratic and lower-class – would dislike. Both aristocrats and servants alike reacted with glee when one of the servants, portrayed by Richard Grant, dumped a cup of hot tea (or coffee) on Henry’s lap. With Henry being an American, I can only assume he made an easier target for the derision of everyone. I can only wonder why Altman and Balaban did not question this heavy-handed characterization of Henry. Regardless of Fellowes’ reason for vilifying Henry, I found the rape attempt as an example of clumsy and unnecessary writing on his part.

Thankfully, most of “GOSFORD PARK” proved to be quite a cherished gem. Not even the flaws I had pointed out in the above paragraphs can overcome my appreciation of this movie. Altman, Balaban and Fellowes took a classic literary device – “country house mystery” – and used it to explore the British class system of the early 1930s. “GOSFORD PARK” revealed the changes that affected Britain’s social landscape by 1932. Aside from Lord Stockbridge, most of the aristocratic characters seemed to be struggling to make ends meet financially in order to maintain a lifestyle they had been born into. Those from a middle-class or working-class background like Sir William McCordle, his “cousin” Ivor Novello, Morris Weissman and Mabel Nesbitt have become successful, wealthy or in the case of Mabel, the offspring of a self-made man. Their success and wealth has allowed them to socialize amongt the aristocracy and upper-class. But their origins continue to attract scorn from the likes of Lady Sylvia, her sister Lady Lavinia and their aunt, the Countess of Trentham. The servants featured in “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be divided into three categories – those who are blindly loyal to their employers; those like Elsie, Robert Parks and Mrs. Croft, who despise their employers; and those like Mary, Jennings and Mrs. Wilson who do not love or hate their employers, but simply take pride in their professionalism.

What I found interesting about “GOSFORD PARK” is that both servants and guests possessed both positive and negative traits. The exceptions to the rule proved to be Mary, who struck me as a bit too ideal for my tastes; and of course, Henry Denton, whose portrayal I had already complained about. Most people would add that Sir William had also been portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. But the humiliations he endured under the snobbish Lady Sylvia and Elsie’s warm recollections of him saved the character from such a fate.

Another aspect about “GOSFORD PARK” that I truly enjoyed was its overall production design. Stephen Altman did a superb job of re-creating the atmosphere of a country manor home in the early 1930s. He was ably supported by Anna Pinnock’s set decorations, along with John Frankis and Sarah Hauldren’s art direction. For me, it was Jenny Bevan’s costumes and the women’s hairstyles that made me realize that the production team really knew what they were doing. I have rarely come across a movie or television production set in the 1930s that was completely accurate – especially in regard to costumes and hairstyles.

There were plenty of first-rate performances in “GOSFORD PARK”. But there were a handful that stood out for me. Both Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayals of Mrs. Wilson and the Countess of Trentham, respectively. Mirren was superb as the no-nonsense housekeeper, whose stoic personality hid a passionate nature that would eventually be revealed upon a discovery she made. In my review of Season One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, I had complained that Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the Dowager Countess of Grantham bore a strong resemblance to her Lady Trentham in “GOSFORD PARK”. I stand by that observation. But there is something about Smith’s portrayal of Lady Trentham that struck me as a lot more subtle and a little more poisonous in her class bigotry. Clive Owen gave a charismatic performance as the mysterious valet, Robert Parks, whose past attracts the attention of both Mary Maceachran and Mrs. Wilson.

Michael Gambon gave one of his more interesting performances as the mystery’s main victim, Sir William McCordle. Superficially, he was as crude and cold-blooded as many regarded the character. Yet, Gambon injected a certain charm into his performance that made it easier for me to see why Sir William had a way with the ladies. Bob Balaban provided some fine comic moments as the droll Hollywood producer that harbored a slight contempt toward his aristocratic hosts behind a polite veneer. I have already pointed out Ryan Phillipe’s portrayal of Henry Denton. I must admit that he did a first-rate job in conveying the portrait of a smooth hustler. Many have commented on Maggie Smith’s wit in the movie. However, I thought that Emily Watson’s portrayal of head housemaid Elsie was equally sharp and sardonic. Alan Bates gave one of his last best performances as the stuffy, yet likable major domo of the McCordle household, who harbored a secret about his past as a conscientious objector during World War I. At the same time, Watson was wonderfully poignant as one of the few people who not only mourned Sir William, but appreciated his friendship and words of wisdom to her. I found it surprising that the movie’s moral center proved to the be the sweet and eventually wise Mary Maceachran, Lady Trentham’s new personal maid. Kelly MacDonald was in her mid-20s when she did this movie and her character was not particularly flashy in compare to many of the other roles. Yet, not only did she held her own against the likes of Maggie Smith and Emily Watson, she did a great job in becoming the movie’s emotional anchor . . . even if her character was a bit too ideal for my tastes.

“GOSFORD PARK” earned a good deal of accolades after its release. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won a Best Original Screenplay for Julian Fellowes. It also earned five Golden Globe awards and Robert Altman won for Best Director. Would I have voted “GOSFORD PARK” as the Best Picture of 2001? Not really. I was more impressed by Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. But thanks to a superb cast, Julian Fellowes’ screenplay and Robert Altman’s direction, it not proved to be one of the cinematic gems of 2001, but also of the entire decade.