Directed By Robert Altman
By: Eric Greenwood
Robert Altman goes period piece in his latest offering, Gosford Park- a comedic murder/mystery set in the 1930"s and featuring some of England"s A-list actors (Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren). The last decade was shaky at best for Altman, who churned out some of his most cynical and bitter work- Pret-a-Porter being a particular low. Cookie"s Fortune showed a return to filmmaking as a labor of love (despite the presence of the nefarious Liv Tyler), but Dr T. And The Women blew the momentum with a boring script and Richard Gere"s squinty-eyed non-acting.
In Gosford Park Altman seems like he"s actually having fun again. The setting is an enormous castle of a home in the English countryside of Sussex, and the cast of characters is gathering for a dinner with an absurdly wealthy, crabby patriarch (Michael Gambon) to whom everyone is tied, either by blood or finance or both; thus, creating the perfect scene for a Clue-style murder. The direction plays its own role, as the camera glides throughout the house, capturing every last glance and awkward stare.
The sound, too, is showcased innovatively through the use of an inordinate amount of microphones. Altman doesn"t differentiate between the sounds in the room. Everyone"s voice is at the same level, so you could conceivably pick up bits of different conversations in subsequent viewings, but more often than not you miss key phrases. It"s disconcerting at first, especially because there are so many characters, but you will adapt quickly. Getting their names straight is another story"
Like a good Agatha Christie novel (specifically, Ten Little Indians), everyone is a suspect. The relationships are all inextricably bound to one another. Affairs are rampant. Husbands trade wives. Servants bed down with the upper crust, destroying snobbish hierarchies with sexual deviance. Seedy finances are at stake. The house is a den of sin and debauchery. Even the servants have various and sundry motives to kill. By the time actor/author Steven Fry"s inspector character arrives, the film is straddling the line of farce. Fry is a caricature- a goofy, eccentric inspector a la Clouseau, but his charm balances the disturbingly blas" attitude, which permeates the mansion after Sir William"s death.
There are so many intriguing sub-plots and side-stories and darkly comedic intricacies that there"s not a dull moment in the film. The two-and-a-half hours fly by unnoticed. Altman succeeds on every level here thanks in part to Julian Fellowes" crisp, quick-witted, and detailed screenplay but even more because of the standout performances by Emily Watson and Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting). Unlike the recent trend for films like Fight Club and Vanilla Sky to cop out with some sort of half-assed "dream sequence" ending, the murder/mystery resolution is satisfying. Altman and Fellowes cleverly establish proper clues, so that you can figure out who the murderer is without having your intelligence insulted.
Gosford Park is far and away Robert Altman"s best film since The Player and should even rank among his best work.