Prayer Focus
Movie Review

Gosford Park

MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief sexuality

Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill

Very Offensive
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Mystery Drama
2 hr. 17 min.
Year of Release:
Scene from “Gosford Park” Scene from “Gosford Park”

Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gambon | Directed by: Robert Altman | Produced by: Robert Altman, Bob Balaban, David Levy | Written by: Julian Fellowes | Distributor: USA Films

Robert Altman, once America’s most idiosyncratic director, now seems mainstream, even tame, compared to today’s crop of younger directors whose offbeat sensibility seems to take cues more from current avant-garde trends in art and theatre than from independent cinema traditions of the past forty years. The works of Wes Andersen (“The Royal Tenenbaums”), Tod Solondz (“Storytelling”), and The Farelly Brothers (“Shallow Hal”) derive their humor and their bite not from the everyday or the conventional, not even from the unexpected or the bizarre that may underlie the conventional, but from the shock value of the taboos that a culture keeps at bay in order to respect itself and to sustain itself. The spirit and the humor of the independent artist appears to be vanishing. All that remains is a spoiled child crying out for attention and affirmation.

Altman, to his credit, continues to maintain a strong independent spirit. He is one of America’s great film artists. He has overreached sometimes, making some disasters that were painfully didactic and maudlin (“Brewster McCloud”, “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”, “Health”). During other more inspired periods he worked his camera like a loom, weaving together characters and stories in a way that shone a new light on the American experience (“Nashville”, “Thieves Like Us”, “Short Cuts”). I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a Western the way I used to after I watched McCabe and Mrs. Miller in the early 1970s. Altman did not debunk the Western myth, or laugh at it. He didn’t even try to reshape it. With “McCabe”, he told the often repeated story about life on the frontier from a new perspective. The movie was a breakthrough, the only good western made in the 1970s. Its effect at the time was exhilarating.

“Gosford Park” at first seems like a departure for Altman. A period mystery set in rural England in 1932, the plot involves the murder of one of the inhabitants of a large manor house by someone who lives in the house, works in the house or is visiting the house. The events take place during a weekend in the country when the hosts and guests spend their time pheasant hunting, dining and cardplaying, and the servants work diligently to assure that their charges are well cared for. Altman weaves traditional mystery plot elements (shady characters with undefined pasts, noises in the dark, strategically placed poison bottles and knives, well timed red herrings) with real character development. The houseguests are interesting as people, not just as suspects. The clues don’t dominate. They simmer in the background while Altman allows the characters to breathe and develop personalities of their own without the baggage of always having to look suspicious. I have a hard time watching the Agatha Christie film adaptations (“And Then There Were None”, “Murder on the Orient Express”) because I tire too quickly of people standing around in drawing rooms or in dining cars button-mouthed and tremulous and unwilling to divulge anything about themselves. A lot of stuff gets divulged in “Gosford Park”, and not all of it has to do with murder. Altman probes the lives of the rich landowner family, their wealthy or wanna-be wealthy guests, and their large staff of servants on whose shoulders the day to day operation and subsistence of the manor depends.

The workings of the staff are fascinating to watch. Their daily routines, whether it be making jam or rinsing out a blouse, are stirring profiles in simplicity and devotion. The “upstairs-downstairs” interactions reflect the social inequities and class struggles common to every society and always magnified in British life and lore, but Altman doesn’t let that friction drive the plot. Nor does he preach to us about it. He lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves, and he allows the mystery unfold with enough clarity to ensure some good suspense and enough compassion to let us fully understand, and enjoy, each character.

The cast is large, and except for two Americans, all British. It’s the best bit of ensemble acting I’ve seen on screen in a long time. Maybe it’s the best I’ve ever seen. All the performers are perfect. Even Maggie Smith for once has refrained from chewing the scenery. Altman seems to have stepped back and given the performers a minimum of guidance allowing them to work magic amongst themselves. They even glow during wordless moments when they listen to music while huddled on the stairs or exchange woeful glances while dining by candlelight.

I haven’t formally summarized the plot because I’m afraid of giving away too much. I mentioned earlier that Altman’s approach at first seems traditional. He’s not out to debunk the murder mystery genre, not the way he turned the private eye story on its head in “The Long Goodbye.” He keeps the train on the tracks until he approaches the station. The ending veers away from the traditional mystery closure, something which has become a trend in modern mystery fiction. It is a trend that I find disturbing. A new kind of justice emerges in these tales, a conviction which seems to excuse the breaking of the Fifth Commandment under certain circumstances. If a murder victim exploited the poor, traded in substances that led to one or more individuals’ deaths, committed rape or inflicted sexual abuse on a minor, the author or the filmmaker shifts the point of view toward the victim’s misdeeds and away from the murderer’s act. In our expanding culture of death we seem to be acknowledging the insignificance of terminating a life for our own justification or our own convenience. A similar value system (one which makes excuses for breaking the Eighth Commandment) was at work in the recent remake of “Ocean’s 11.” Andy Garcia’s character is greedy, exploitative, mean, and a lot less cool than Danny Ocean (George Clooney). He, therefore, deserved to get ripped off, and the thieves could not be faulted for picking on such a jerk. Ocean’s 11 celebrates corruption and is a rip-off of a movie (as were Soderbergh’s other films: “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”). Altman’s film is rich and moving entertainment, as well as a mature social commentary, but it is still a story that lacks a moral core.

Justice ensures that morality and society are upheld. If justice is not upheld society deteriorates into the morass we see crystallized in “Ocean’s 11.” In “Gosford Park”, the social and moral fabric of life doesn’t crumble as it does in the Soderbergh film, but it is left standing on shaky ground.

Viewer Comments
Positive—This film is wonderful… if 1) You like movies with a British cast 2) You like Altmans huge cast style 3) You like a weaving story that is a challenge to follow. This isn’t a movie you can just go see and sit back and relax while munching on popcorn. This film takes work… but if you are willing, the payoff is amazing!
My Ratings: [Average / 5]
—Teen, age 18
Negative—I have never been into Altman’s work. Too many characters to follow is one of the problems. Also, his films seem to go on and on without a point, and end inconclusively. This film was marketed as a comedy, but I didn’t find much funny about it, despite some good performances by Stephen Fry, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren. It is quite jarring when the story suddenly becomes dramatic near the end. I guessed who was responsible for the murder at the heart of the plot long before it was revealed; major clues were given away long before the crime took place. Unless you really like this director’s films, don’t spend time with this one.
My Ratings: [Average / 2]
—Hillari Hunter, age 40
Positive—I have to agree with much of Jim O'Niell’s review, but I would disagree with his summary that this movie, like “Ocean’s 11” supports a belief that the end justifies the means. In fact, Gosford Park does depict the 10 Commandments broken in almost every scene. However, when you compare and contrast today’s movies such as “Titanic,” where fornication is depicted as beautiful, romantic and almost heroic because of the context (tragedy), Altman leaves viewers with a more truthful, unvarnished look at the unintended and ugly byproducts of sin, and the fallen nature of man. One surprising and unmentioned element of this movie is the revelation that innocent life (I’ll keep it a surprise) is the ultimate victim of society’s selfishness and corruption. Honest moviegoers will leave Gosford Park with no illusions about humanity’s supposed inherent “goodness.” This may not have been Altman’s purpose in making this film, but I appreciated the departure from mainstream movies that trumpet the message contained in “Titanic” and others—that sin is beautiful and appropriate when in the “right” context, and that mankind is basically good.
My Ratings: [Average / 4]
—Derek Taylor, age 29
Positive—Gosford Park is the kind of film that overflows with elegance, but never wastes it. It has dozens of wonderful characters, but few are made into cliches, and the ones that are, are fun cliches so no one cares. The acting is simply fabulous, and I wholeheartedly agree that this is more than likely the best ensemble ever assembled. No character dominated the film. Many had dominating personalities, but Altman never lost his focus. I really enjoyed this film for its characters. I won’t reveal which ones I liked because I think it would give away or hint at some secrets, but “Gosford Park” is filled with amazing concoctions of humanity. As for the morality issue of murder, I have never really saw it as an issue. I knew the film involved death, and I think the killer had some interesting motives and did not come away unharmed themselves, emotionally, which can be just as bad or worse. The film operates around secrets. Some secrets were kept because of greed and a lust for power… *Note* I am confused at how the reviewer could have so greatly missed the boat on Steven Soderbergh, one of the best directors we have. In heist movies, value systems are suspended along with our disbelief at the fact that the characters are actually accomplishing some of the things they do. “Ocean’s Eleven” in no way promoted a life of crime. It is astonishing that the reviewer missed the boat on that fun film so badly. As well, “Traffic” (the film for which Soderbergh won an Academy Award) certainly did NOT advocate drug use. What it did do was open the eyes of a lot of people about just how difficult the war on drugs is, and that is a very admirable thing in my opinion.
My Ratings: [Average / 4½]
—Jason Eaken, age 18
Positive—I am not a huge fan of Robert Altman’s “organic” style, in which he putatively shows the interconnectedness of the cast of characters, and thus of all human beings. The cast is so large in this case, as in some of his other films, that it is hard to keep track of the proceedings. Nevertheless, I found that this movie worked better and better as it unfolded, and it did ultimately draw me in so that I cared deeply about the characters, at least about the servants. Altman succeeds brilliantly in showing the many ways in which the ruling class exploits and mistreats the working class, even if not through explicit cruelty. By focusing on the servants rather than the masters, Altman goes beyond other very good films which demonstrate the decadence of 20th Century nobility, such as “The Shooting Party” and Jean Renoir’s masterpiece “The Rules of the Game.” Plus, the amusing way in which the film throws away the murder mystery is just a brilliant subversion of a trite genre…
My Ratings: [5]
—Denys St. John, age 35
Negative—About fifteen minutes into the movie, Gosford Park, I had a revelation: the average American viewer of this movie about the English Upper classes would need several viewings of the film if they ever were to understand it. It’s not so much the accents, but the sound quality and the general mumbling contribute to an overall lack of quality. My friends and I kept turning to each other and asking, “What’d he say?” This kind of thing is fatal to a movie with countless characters, interweaving complicated stories, and actors who all look like each other… The plot, such as it is is this: Several British aristocrats and some rich American filmmakers are visiting an estate house for a shooting party.

The estate owner is not well-liked by his immediate family. (He likes his dog, however.) Of course he gets murdered. His wife, Lady Sylvia, (Kristin Scott Thomas) thinks him cold and uncouth (although all these folks are pretty cold) There are others two who might have a reason to kill him. The dowager who has been allotted a small allowance—which he might take away—(played by Maggie Smith) and his daughter who wants money for her husband. All these rich folks and their guests are each waited upon hand and foot by their servants who are victims and upholders of the class system. Later a doltish stupid inspector enters the picture. We see most of the estate happenings through the eyes of the young and innocent Mary, servant to the acid lip dowager. But after all is said and done, who cares about these people? No one in this film has a meaningful life.

The rich live vicariously through gossip. The poor live vicariously through the rich. The artist—there’s always a healing artistic presence in Altman films—are either solipsistic, ignorant or self-involved. (The actor/lord at the piano may please the poor but doesn’t realize he has gone on way too long for the rich. The vegetarian filmmaker sits in at the shooting but wears a fur-lined coat.) Perhaps I am burdened by a need to see meaningful films. Perhaps I don’t care that the war era British empire was made up of empty people and fading away into nothingness. The fact is: these people are bored and have nothing to do with their time but to gossip. And mere gossip and bed-hopping doesn’t interest me much unless a film has other things on its mind. This movie seems to be strolling over old territory. Territory which the old film, “The Shooting Party” did much better.

Christians will not like the bedhopping, homosexual or otherwise. Nor do we get into the malicious glee at the antics because we honestly can’t hear a word that is said. And honestly… it’s been years since mere malicious glee at the lustful antics of the rich ever made me perk up. Oh yeah… there is the plight of the underclasses. All those children—the product of upper class assignations—hidden away and seemingly lost! But still, I didn’t care. No one forced these servants to sleep with their “masters” anyway. The only standout in the film is Clive Owen who seems to be the only character in the film with any real feelings or personality. I’m trying to see if there is any redeeming spiritual value in this film. Let’s see: it tells us that the consequences of lust—between the rich and the poor anyway—will always end up being worse for the poor folks involved. It tells us that the rich can be empty, cold and obsessed with money. Altman did a better job skewering mythic America when he did Nashville all those years ago. Unfortunately, now he is more removed from America and from average people. This kind of exclusivity is not the kind of thing that makes for great art. Creating characters who are eminent and out of touch, Altman shows that he too is eminently out of touch.
My Ratings: [Extremely Offensive / 2]
—Carole Mcdonnell, age 42
Movie Critics
…Nine obscenities and a few profanities, plus the brief sex scene, some condoned adultery and implied sex between unmarried couples, run down the image of critically acclaimed GOSFORD PARK…
—Preview Family Movie and TV Review
…Some heterosexual and homosexual connotations are made, while a couple is seen having sex (with movement but no nudity or sounds)…
…some veiled homosexual innuendo: a man says to another man “you won’t get to see him in his underdrawers,” and a man asks his male servant “will I see you later?”…