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Gosford Park: Collector's Edition

Universal Studios Home Video

Starring Bob Balaban, Jeremy Northam, Stephen Fry,
Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Alan Bates,
Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi,
Emily Watson, Clive Owen, and Ryan Phillippe

Written by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Robert Altman

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Gosford Park was nominated for seven Oscars, and garnered only one, for its excellent screenplay by Julian Fellowes. But if the film had won any more than that, the awards would have been something of a tragedy, for such mainstream success would have distorted the public's sense of what a Robert Altman really is.

The biggest question an informed viewer asks is: How did this get to be an Robert Altman film at all? Gosford Park is so much better than his recent movies, and different from the bulk of his 40-some-picture output, that it stands out as a joyous anomaly. Whereas the usual Altman film is a fragmented, weirdly cast, sarcastic tale that strives to thwart audience genre expectations, Gosford Park is a literate, complex, expansive, generous, sympathetic tale of class and power in transition in England between the wars.

Taking place over the course of one weekend in November, 1932, at the estate of nouveau riche industrialist Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), Gosford Park is about sex and money, two topics that few talk about in polite society but which is on everyone's mind. In this rich, complex Upstairs, Downstairs world, McCordle is assailed by various children and sisters- and brothers-in-law about money, while sex is going on all around, barely as clandestinely as one would think. On the Upstairs side of things, the irascible, snobbish Aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) needs a bigger allowance, and a cousin of McCordle, Ivor Novello (a real life actor, writer, and songwriter played by Jeremy Northam) has dragged along an American movie producer (Bob Balaban) and his Scottish servant Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe) so he can research British upper-class life. There are about four more stories all going on at once on this side of things, each developed in varying degrees of detail, and all culminating in a murder.

Meanwhile, Downstairs, housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) is feuding with cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), while the butler Jennings (Alan Bates) is hitting the sauce, and newcomers Mary (Kelly Macdonald) and Robert (Clive Owen) are trying to fit in. There are about eight stories going on in this half of the house, with multiple connections both within the Downstairs world and with tangents into the Upstairs. Altman and his writer and collaborating actors leave many of these subplots dangling; and viewers hoping for a traditional Agatha Christie-style denouement after Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) shows up to “solve” the case will be sorely disappointed.

*          *          *

Gosford Park is an intriguing tale that has the scope of a great movie and the messiness of real life. The film evinces careful attention to detail about everything from the hierarchies in the world of servants to the correct number of inches between one place setting and another. Like The Remains of the Day, this is a film about the end of an era and the dissolution of the mass comfort of a whole class. As writer Fellowes notes in his commentary track, the film is also about the wide discrepancy between the patronage of the upper classes to high arts, and the mass culture that was leaving them behind; this is illustrated by the disdain that many of the Upstairs people feel about Novello and his charming songs (actually performed by Northam), and the mania for them downstairs.

The performances are uniformly excellent, but one would expect no less from a cache of the world's greatest actors and actresses. Standouts include a subtle Clive Owen and a world-weary Emily Watson as Head Housemaid Elsie. Michael Gambon, one of Britain's great actors, fully embodies his powerful man of crude tastes, while Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife is imperious as a snobbish horsewoman. Really only viewed fleetingly are Charles Dance as a cuckolded husband, Alan Bates, who brings dignity to his part, and Richard E. Grant and Derek Jacobi as further Downstairs aides. Ryan Phillippe is appropriately callow as a someone different from what he seems. The only wrong note in the film is Stephen Fry as a bumbling detective. His shtick threatens to derail the tone of the film. They all contribute to a film that demands to be watched more than once; but beginner fans beware, for it is not typical of Altman's work.

As is to be expected of a new DVD release, Universal does a fantastic job with this USA Films title. It comes in an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), and while Andrew Dunn's cinematography is more interesting for its movement than its color quality, it looks good on disc. Audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround (though the film was released theatrically also in DTS, that is not an option here). Patrick Doyle's characteristically excellent score is discreet, and several Novello sounds enliven the soundtrack. There are also English and Spanish subtitles.

There are numerous significant extras on this Collector's Edition. First off is an audio commentary from director Robert Altman. He is an engaging and knowledgeable man of 77 years experience, and he comes across much calmer than he does, say, in Patrick McGilligan's biography. The most significant gestalt the listener gets from Altman is that he allows much more flexibility on the set and with his actors than most directors; he doesn't seem to be a Hitchcock-style control freak.

Better yet is the complementary audio commentary track with Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes. The Britisher is a delight to listen to and adds a wealth of insight into the background of the world he is presenting, which he both researched but was connected to in tangential ways. This simply is one of the best commentary tracks ever, and in itself is worth the cost of the disc.

For those who couldn't get enough of Gosford Park, there is more — some 20 deleted scenes. They are numbered and can all be found in the screenplay as published by Newmarket Press (180 pages, $18.95, ISBN 1 55704 531 3). There is an optional commentary track featuring Altman, producer David Levy, and production designer Stephen Altman, who all explain what the scenes mean and why they were cut.

These scenes continue or conclude subplots, and could just as easily be in as out, or integrated into the movie on the B-side of the disc. They certainly add to an already-rich canvas.

Other supplements include a typically backslapping "making-of" featurette, "The Making of Gosford Park" (20 min.) and another featurette called "The Authenticity of Gosford Park" (8:30) in which the technical consultants, butler Arthur Inch, cook Ruth Mott, and parlor maid Violet Liddle, are interviewed.

Finally, there is "Gosford Park: Cast and Filmmaker Question and Answer Session," a 25-minute roundtable discussion with cast (Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Jeremy Northam, Ryan Phillippe) and crew (Robert Altman, Julian Fellowes, producer David Levy) at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, held on March 8, 2002, after a screening of the film and moderated by Pete Hammond. This is an entertaining discussion, and the highlights are a fetching Helen Mirren and a charming Jeremy Northam.

The theatrical trailer (which doesn't really advertise the film well), credits for 27 members of the cast and crew, ads for the Gosford Park soundtrack CD, and trailers for other Universal films round out the disc.

— D. K. Holm

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© 2002, The DVD Journal