“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.
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