It’s a bit surprising that Robert Altman’s most well-received movie in the latter half of his long career was 2001’s Gosford Park. Altman came on the scene as a quintessentially American filmmaker, with movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville, and The Long Goodbye being not only great films, but great American films, where their settings or their themes or both were classic Americana. None of the characters in those movies have anything in common with the British upper-crusties in this week’s Movie Klub entry, but for a master filmmaker, it shouldn’t matter, and Altman is a master indeed.
I’ll admit, for a while I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this movie. I have no interest in the well-reviewed British import Downton Abbey (created by Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park), because I’m not much for soap operas, be they British or American. For its first 90 minutes or so, Gosford Park plays like Downton Abbey: The Movie, a reference made by more than a few Movie Klubbers. During a weekend gathering, a group of British lords and ladies play high-society upstairs, while their servants have similar drama downstairs.
It’s as soapy as you can get, with hidden intrigue, personality conflicts, and social mores being the order of the day. The class-conflict angle is played up, as one might expect. It becomes clear that the high society and their servants have so very much in common, as one might expect. At the same time, it’s clear that they are so far apart that the gap between them can never be breached, and it’s dangerous to even try … yes, as one might expect. For the first ninety minutes or so, this film was a well-executed exercise in telling me a bunch of things I had already seen many times.
But, as I joked afterward, “it took this movie so long to get me … but then it got me.” Around the aforementioned ninety-minute mark, Gosford Park takes a sharp twist. Without spoiling too much, the stakes get quite a bit higher. Up to this moment, I had found the characters’ issues interesting, but not quite enough for a movie; afterward, the stakes are quite literally life and death. Immediately the hidden meanings and secretive glances become more important; they don’t just gain meaning, but they gain multiple possible meanings. It’s like the drama equivalent of the moment when The Wizard of Oz goes from black & white to full color.
Not only did the twist make the story and characters more interesting to me, but I think all of the actors upped their games afterward as well. Kelly McDonald (whom you may remember as Carla Jean Moss in No Country For Old Men) and Clive Owen are great throughout, but they deliver their best work in the final act of the film. Dame Helen Mirren blends into the scenery for most of the movie, but during the final act she has a scene so fantastic that it practically earned her an Academy Award nomination by itself.
Altman was old hand at dealing with ensemble casts by this point, but this ensemble is huge even compared to his older movies. Fifteen actors are listed on the film’s Wikipedia page, meaning they’re famous enough to have Wikipedia entries on their own and in the movie long enough to warrant mentioning. There are three Knights of the British Empire and three Dames in the film, and that’s not even a fourth of the total cast list during the credits. Ryan Phillippe even does a turn, sporting a Scottish accent which might at first seem poor, but develops into something later on.
With a cast that size, the most important thing that Altman had to do right is to ensure that everyone played their roles to the right size. No one should be bigger than their role is written, or so small that we don’t take note of them for later. This is what makes this movie masterful: the first half isn’t dull because nothing is happening, it’s dull because being a member of the British upper crust in 1932 was a fairly dull experience. No actor hijacks the movie, and the direction is such that the camera fades into the background.
Altman draws out his setup, and once he’s got the audience so thoroughly involved in that setup that they’re becoming as ground down as the characters on-screen, he flips the whole thing on its head. It wasn’t until after the film that I realized he had perfectly manipulated me as an audience member, which is exactly what we should demand from our movie directors.
Reviewed by Mark Young