Before Downton Abbey, There Was Gosford Park

by Rachel Bellwoar

Gosford Park is a movie where what you know gets you in the door but then threatens to get in the way, while what you don’t know is a lot more than you realize (even when it’s over). “Couldn’t that statement apply to any movie?,” you might ask (and it would be a valid question), but my answer to that is “not as much as it applies to Robert Altman‘s take on the English murder mystery.”

If you’re familiar with Altman (who’s directorial credits include Nashville and MASH) than there’s a good chance he’s one of the reasons you’re watching this film but, even if you don’t, you can see how many names are listed on the front of Arrow’s Blu-Ray. Gosford Park is a who’s who of British acting elite — Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi, Clive Owen. When you’re watching the film for the first time this is both helpful and distracting because while it’s through recognizing so many members of the cast that you have a chance of keeping track of the characters, you’re also thinking about where you saw them before instead of the dialogue. Gosford Park isn’t a film for repeating itself, so if you miss something that’s it, and it can be overwhelming, the way attending an actual shooting party would be.
Julian Fellowes wrote and won an Oscar for Gosford Park‘s screenplay. Today his name is synonymous with Downton Abbey, the show he created, and of which Gosford Park stands as a precursor. Although they share much in common (including Maggie Smith in a fabulous, barb throwing role), Gosford Park and Downton Abbey aren’t the same. They’ve both have the upstairs/downstairs dynamic going on, so it can seem like they’re cut from the same cloth (and they are to a certain degree) and the murder mystery doesn’t do much to alleviate the sense that it’s been done before but stick with Gosford until the second dinner. While William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his handout-seeking family have always had it out for each other, this is the point when they start saying as much to each other’s faces and it’s absolutely cutting.
Gosford Park is a movie you appreciate the more times you watch it, another sentence that sounds like a blanket statement for film, but Gosford Park turns it into an art form. It really is a revelation how much is going on in this movie — the internal struggles certain characters are going through but never give anything away, because they’re in service and they’re British and these are professionals, but when the truth comes out every scene is colored by it and it was all there. Everything was happening under your nose. You just didn’t have the information to unlock Fellowes’ plot.
Filmed using two cameras and no extras, the cast had to be on all the time because no one knew when they were in the shot. Instead of playing into the fantasy of what it was like to be upper class, Mabel (Claudie Blakley) enters the room with her back to us, and adjusts her dress, or George (Richard E. Grant) walks down the hall and adjusts his pants at the crotch. Nobody responds to the murder the way you’d expect. It’s not that people aren’t upset that’s unusual but that they aren’t concerned that someone’s a murderer. Nobody acts in fear for their life. Nobody points any fingers. It’s inexplicable.
The bonus features are typical quality for Arrow, but if I had to draw attention to two, they would be Fellowes’ commentary, which is a delightful mix of anecdotes about aunts who inspired lines and the rules behind different customs, and “The Authenticity of Gosford Park,” an archival featurette where the film’s technical advisers were interviewed. There’s also a commentary with Robert Altman, Stephen Altman (who did the production design), and producer, David Levy, and a commentary with film critics, Geoff Andrew and David Thompson (who also has an interview with Altman reprinted in the Blu-ray’s booklet).
Gosford Park might present itself as just another period drama but it’s nothing of the sort. Available now on Blu-Ray from Arrow Academy, this is one implosive gathering you don’t want to miss.

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