January 24, 2002

A Walk in the Park

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There are certain things that give away a Robert Altman film within the first few minutes. Certain things that, after a while, can begin to eat away at even the most dedicated moviegoer and cause him to slowly lose interest.

A large, generously chosen cast of characters. Slow pans. Classical music. Repetition. More zooms than a set of Army binoculars. Offbeat, subtle humor. A gradual, ambling pace and nothing more than an afterthought of plot.

Then, in that exclusive crop of Altman films that have stood the test of popular and critical acclaim, something happens. Something is turned on its head or something goes wrong, and the previous hour suddenly takes on a new importance.

Gosford Park, Altman’s best in years, belongs to that exclusive group. This time around, he focuses his lens on an English mansion during a shooting party in 1930. Sort of like the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs combined with Clue, he alternately portrays the servants and the masters of the house, and the interactions between them.

We see the action through the eyes of Mary Macreachran (Kelly Macdonald), the Countess of Trentham’s (Maggie Smith) maid, as she naively navigates the underworld of servantry. Catching tidbits of gossip and semi-reliable rumors from various guests, she obediently reports back to Smith each night after another tiring day of drinking tea and being entertained.

In the same way, the audience is treated only to tidbits and brief flashes into the personalities of the various characters as they are introduced, including Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), the American film producer, Henry Denton yan Phillippe), the mysterious Scottish valet, and most notably Clive Owen’s secretive valet and Emily Watson’s head housemaid Elsie.

Just when it seems there couldn’t possibly be any more pleasantries exchanged or songs played or pheasants shot at, something happens. In this case, it turns out to be a murder, and keeping true to the genre, everyone is a suspect.

Through the aftermath and the impending investigation by bumbling police inspector Stephen Fry, the almost numbing subtleties of the film’s first hour come to the forefront. As it turns out, all is not what it seemed in Gosford Park. Hidden agendas, secret relationships, and ulterior motives plague the shallow upper class as the line between servants and masters is continually blurred.

As in many of his films, Altman uses words as his primary tool. In Gosford Park they take on more importance than usual as even his trademark zoom lens is absent. The words’ painful meaninglessness introduce us to the blandness of upper-class life, and they reveal more than the cardboard faces of many of the guests and more than a simple murder-mystery piece could ever illuminate.

Gosford Park amazes not only for Altman’s deft handling of the cast and various themes, but for its ability to function both as a generic period piece and a film that mocks its own genre.

Archived article by Andy Guess