Friday, January 6, 2012

Gosford Park

Watching The Mirror Crack'd last month reminded me just how much I used to enjoy Agatha Christie novels.  Sure, they're a bit dated, but there is something I find appealing in a whodunnit with a limited number of suspects.  Luckily, there are very few whodunnits made into motion pictures, which means that it is relatively easy to find the most popular and critically-acclaimed entries in the genre.  According to a two-minute long internet search I conducted, the only famous whodunnits of this century are Gosford Park and Identity; I sure as hell wasn't going to subject myself to Identity again (John Cusack, please make better movies!), so I opted to watch Gosford Park.

The premise for Gosford Park is pretty straightforward, although the relationships between the characters are anything but.  Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) are entertaining for the weekend.  Their extended family and their servants all descend on Gosford Park for a few days of prim-and-proper 1930s British etiquette and dinners.  The servants defer to the needs of their masters, and the masters defer to Sir William, who has more than a few family members dependent on his generosity for their income.  Sir William, though, has had enough with generosity and plans to cut off a few needy family members.  The lives of the wealthy are not just their own, though; many among the help have intimate (read: sexy) knowledge of the masters.  With all the secret sexiness and financial desperation in the air, it is not a huge surprise that Sir William is found stabbed at his desk, at a time when almost anyone could have slipped away and done the deed.  It is a surprise when it is revealed that the stab was not the cause of death; someone else had killed Sir William, before he could be murdered by someone else.
Lower left: the look of a man who finds out there is a line to murder him

The cast of Gosford Park is large and ridiculously noteworthy; the ensemble is so large, in fact, that it is difficult to gauge the acting quality for most of the cast.
It is, almost but not at all literally, a cast of thousands
For the upper class characters, Michael Gambon stands out as the patriarch/victim; I became familiar with Gambon through Harry Potter, so I enjoy it when he plays characters with a bastard streak in them.  Kristin Scott Thomas was solid as your typical woman-married-to-a-wealthy-man-much-older-than-her, although I thought she was at her best when she was dealing with Ryan Phillipe.  Maggie Smith was fun as a crotchety old witch.  Camila Rutherford got to look dazed and confused.  I don't think I've ever seen Geraldine Somerville in a role outside of Harry Potter's mother, so that was mildly interesting.  Charles Dance didn't make much of an impression on me.  Tom Hollander was kind of wimpy in his role, but it was better than the pompous one he played in Pirates of the CaribbeanJeremy Northam, who is rarely in anything I want to watch, was surprisingly likable and actually sang quite well in this movie.  Bob Balaban (along with Maggie Smith) quietly delivered most of the film's humor.
While not quite upper class, comedian Stephen Fry makes a short appearance as a humorously inept (but surprisingly plausible) police inspector.  The help were, surprisingly, given (by my estimates, anyway) a little more time to shine.  Helen Mirren had the meatiest role and was predictably excellent.  Emily Watson was also very good as the character that shows the point-of-view character, meekly played by Kelly Macdonald, how things work at formal functions.  This was a good film for long-established Brits; I thought Derek Jacobi had one of the better sub-sub-plots, and Alan Bates was solid as the head butler.  Richard E. Grant provided some very low-key humor, which suited his snooty character just fine.  Ryan Phillipe got to play a character with a twist, which he managed to not completely screw up.  Clive Owen rounded out the underlings by being rude and mysterious whenever he wasn't undressing me with his eyes.

There is just a crap ton of actors in this movie, and a surprising few made a lasting impression on me.  I haven't seen many of Robert Altman's films (please don't recommend The Player to me, it makes my eyes roll more than a teenage girl talking to her mother), but I know he likes to play with large, well-known casts.  I thought that worked in his favor in Gosford Park.  Really, the biggest problem with movie mysteries is that the audience knows that certain actors are destined to have important roles because they are well-known.  Having such a big cast, filled with recognizable actors makes both the victim and killer a lot more surprising.  As far as the standard pillars I judge directors by (cinematography, editing, cohesive storytelling, and actor-handling), Altman is fine, although nothing fantastic.  Instead, he focused on adding layers of nuance to this film.  Yes, it's a murder mystery, but it is also as much about the British class system as my favorite Pulp album.  And that class commentary invites a lot of moments for subtle humor, although I wouldn't qualify this as a comedy.  Still, Altman takes a pretty simple idea and makes it enjoyably complex.
But not enjoyable for everyone

For such a clever work of direction, I was not terribly impressed with the story.  Altman and Balaban come up with the general story, but I found it surprisingly predictable.  Normally, I would be disappointed by that --- I immediately called Ryan Phillipe's secret and figured out Clive Owen's rather quickly --- but there was thankfully an extra twist to keep things interesting.  Still, I was hoping for this movie to take the mystery part a little more seriously.  If it feels like Altman is just using the mystery plot as an excuse to delve into the cultural politics of the British class system pre-World War II, that's because he is.  I really don't mind the subterfuge, but I wish I had gone in knowing that, because I was looking forward to the whodunnit.

I think I appreciate Gosford Park for what it is, but it didn't blow me away.  I didn't see any stellar performances or find myself shocked or appalled by any of the characters.  The plot was decent, but not great.  The commentary, while occasionally funny, was not as sharp as I would have expected, especially given current views on servitude, homosexuality, empowerment, and romance.
1930s view: Scandalous!  2012 view: Where'd his fist go?
What Gosford Park provides is a solid mystery with a good cast, some good performances, and enough light humor to keep for being too depressing.  Given the number of Oscars it got nominated for (it won for its screenplay, which I didn't love!), I was hoping for more.  Maybe this is one of those movies you enjoy more after the initial viewing; having the suspense of the plot out of the way could conceivably make some of the especially subtle humor stand out more, I suppose.  If you have some thoughts on the matter, please leave a comment.  As a first-time viewer, I thought this was pretty good, but not great.

And here's my favorite song about class warfare, from Pulp's Different Class:


  1. Hey Guys,

    On January 12th, 2012 we’re hosting a live Q & A with Angelina Jolie to promote her film In the Land of Blood and Honey, her written and directorial debut. If you were interested in hosting the Live Broadcast of the Q & A on your website, as well as, getting some awesome In the Land of Blood and Honey swag, please feel free to email me and we can get you all set up! Don’t hesitate to come to me with any questions you may have about the event and I look forward to hearing back from you! Have a great day!

    Partner’s Hub Engagement Team

  2. I haven't seen it in a long time but when I did, I thought it was funny, mysterious, and perfectly acted by everybody in perfect Altman form. Good review.