Before Downton Abbey became the period drama phenomenon that it would become, Julian Fellowes teamed with Robert Altman to create a period piece that was equal parts character study, exploration of the British class system and murder mystery; Gosford Park.
Set in 1932, the story unfolds during a weekend shooting party hosted by William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) at his estate, the titular Gosford Park. The guest includes friends, relatives, the actor and composer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and an American film producer (Bob Balaban). When Sir Williams is found murdered in the library, everyone – and the servants who live on the periphery – becomes a suspect.
With a cast of legendary British talent, including Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Richard E Grant, Clive Owen and Jeremy Northam, and joined by an (at the time) shining star of American film, Ryan Phillipe, Gosford Park was the surprise winner of the 2002 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, beating out competition that included The Royal Tenenbaums and Memento.
The support is cast is as strong as the central ensemble featuring, amongst others, Tom Hollander, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates and other familiar names. Under Altman’s directorship, he crafts a film has the calibre of a West End play on the screen. Fellowes’ script bristles with barbed comments, tension, camaraderie, love and loathing and at two hours eleven minutes, it’s a film that doesn’t feel as long as it should.
Beautifully shot by Andrew Dunn and scored by Patrick Doyle, it’s an at time acerbic affair that benefits from the likes of Maggie Smith in a role that would reshape her career in her golden years to this very day. There’s a lot of characters of which to keep track and it’ll keep all but the keenest film viewers on their toes through a first watching, benefitting from subsequent viewing as it’s labyrinthine plot sprawls out with the skill of Agatha Christie. It never loses its place, though, exploring the lives of the rich, their servants and their interactions whilst unpicking the class system, yet never condemning it as the murder and subsequent investigation reveal more secrets and lies.
With so many characters, it’d be hard to cover all the threads in a single review, especially with so much brewing underneath the service as the story unfolds. Whilst Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) may be forthright and plain speaking, she still seems to care for her maid, Mary (Kelly McDonald). The age difference between William McCordle and Lady Sylvia leads to the latter being a cold character to McCordle’s aloof nature. There’s a thread of inappropriate conduct amongst some of the help towards each other, along with a jealousy of position at times, whilst there’s certainly a dark edge to how some of the upper class treat the servants. Then there’s the darkly dangerous and duplicitous Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), weaving in and out of the lives of the lives above and below, whilst Robert Parks (Clive Owen) has secrets of his own. Even at their least civil, there’s respect for those they serve, those they work with and those who serve them; it’s a hotbed of humanity, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Amongst the special features are insightful commentaries from Julian Fellowes, Robert Altman, production designer Stephen Altman and producer David Levy that show the love and commitment that went into creating this masterpiece. A brand new commentary from critics Geoff Andrews and David Thompson (author of Altman on Altman) gives a brand new insight into this work and adds ample depth to the significance of Gosford Park, particularly as a work of the auteur that is Robert Altman.
Add to this the archive “making of” featurettes, the Q&A session and deleted scenes and Arrow Films have crafted a package that is almost as sumptuous as Gosford Park itself, with a 2K restoration from a 4K scan that reveals the warmth of the Technicolor film stock and the glory of each of the Home County locations.
Dir: Robert Altman
Scr: Julian Fellowes
Cast: Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Jeremy Northam, Ryan Phillippe
Prd: David Levy
DOP: Andrew Dunn
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 131 mins
Gosford Park is available on Blu-Ray from November 26th 2018.