Sir William (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia (Kirstin Scott Thomas) McCordle host a shooting party at their country home. During the weekend, the lives of the various servants and guest interact and have an impact on the weekend. Also, over the course of the weekend, Sir William is murdered and many people appear to have motive for the murders. Among the various guests: Countess Trentham (Maggie Smith), an elderly dowager and financial drain on Sir William, Lord and Lady Stockbridge (Charles Dance and Geraldine Sommerville), brother and sister-in-law of William, each of whom is interested in the McCordles, Ivor Novello (Jermey Northam), star of the Silent screen and Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a Hollywood producer. The various servants include: Jennings (Alan Bates), the McCordle’s butler, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), the housekeeper, Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), the head cook, Probert (Derek Jacobi), Sir William’s valet, Elsie (Emily Watson), a housemaid, George (Richard E. Grant), First Footman, Robert Parks (Clive Owen), Lord Stockbridge’s valet and Henry Denton (Ryan Phillipe), M.r Weissman’s valet.
“Gosford Park”, the newest film from director Robert Altman is a very engaging, very well-made film about the lives of these people. As the film progresses, you realize that the film is less about the murder that takes place over the weekend and more about the class differences between the two sets of people. It quickly becomes apparent that there really is no difference between the Upstairs and the Downstairs people. Certain people receive different treatment with respect to their birth and upbringing. Also, due to the amount of fooling around between the two groups, it seems fairly silly to have one person referred to as Lord or Lady when they are perfectly happy to jump into the sack with a footman or maid.
The fact that the mystery is not a primary factor is made very clear in two ways. Mr. Weissman (Bob Balaban) soon reveals that he is a producer of the Charlie Chan movies and is working on a new film called “Charlie Chan in London”. He is asked to tell the group about it, but won’t reveal the ending. As he describes the film, we realize that the film he is describing is the film we are watching. I don’t know if you have ever seen a Charlie Chan film, but the outcome of these films is rarely based on any detective or police work. Soon, Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) enters the picture. A bumbling idiot, he is clearly overpowered by the class of people he is dealing with.
“Park” is filled with virtually every British actor currently working and each is very good. The sheer magnitude of the characters would seem to suggest that many of them would end up being two dimensional. However, almost every character has something going on, which helps to define them and provide interest to the story. Certainly, some characters become more prevalent and integral to the story, but Altman has a way of bringing a character into the picture at just the right moment to renew our interest in them.
Maggie Smith is, as always, brilliant. As the elderly dowager, she uses her place and title to full advantage, and seems to love everything about her life, except for the size of her allowance. Just as she is commenting about the ineptitude of her personal maid, Mary Macreachran (Kelly McDonald), she makes an aside that she is very cheap, than goes on to talk about her state of financial affairs. Jeremy Northam and Bob Balaban provide the other standouts in the cast. Northam, playing Ivor Novello, an actual silent film star, seems genuinely perplexed by the state of his career and takes to singing one song after another. Bob Balaban plays Morris Weissman, a film producer from Hollywood, whom the kitchen staff soon finds out is a vegetarian.
The cast of actors playing the staff is generally more interesting. Alan Bates heads up the service staff as Jennings, the head butler. He maintains a tight grip on the household with the help of Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), the housekeeper. Mirren brings an iron rule to the role but also makes the character sympathetic and interesting in small, interesting ways. Ms. Wilson and Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), the head cook, seem to have a small feud of power going on. Each character has secrets which are revealed in subtle ways. Clive Owen, as Stockbridge’s valet, provides a quiet force in the servant’s quarters and his presence eventually shakes things up. Derek Jacobi and Richard E. Grant also play members of the staff, adding to the mix.
Ryan Phillipe also appears in the film as the Scottish valet to Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban). At first, his accent seems very 'actorly', as though someone who studied the accent for a bit suddenly thinks they can do it. Another character comments on the accent and soon we realize that perhaps he is not everything he seems. Phillipe is OK, but he is outmatched by every other actor in the film both in skill and physical presence. It smacks of a desperate attempt by the filmmakers to attract a portion of the American audience that never would go to a film like this. As his character becomes more clear, it also appears as though the filmmakers are trying to create a plausible excuse for their own actions in casting him.
As the film progresses, Altman seemlessly weaves back and forth between the characters and their developing relationships, revealing little bits and then moving on. This manages to keep the cumbersome film and cast of characters fresh and to maintain our interest, while helping us identify the various players.
“Gosford Park” is filled with interesting characters and very good performances, providing two hours of fun for everyone.