Robert Altman, who is 76 and one of America’s most distinctive filmmakers, has directed many great films and even some television over the past 45 years. Altman made his directorial debut with The Delinquents (1957), and before going on to direct classics such as M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975), he spent years directing episodes of television for series including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza. He has explored many great themes and made some commercial flops as well but until Gosford Park all of his films were made in the USA.
Gosford Park is a traditional 1930s-style murder mystery, set in an English country house over a weekend and told entirely from the perspective of the servants. This of course is not a new idea and in many ways Gosford Park shares themes with Jean Renoir’s film, La R?e Du Jeu (1939).
Gosford Park is a very Altman feast of a film. It is exquisitely shot by Andrew Dunn in meticulous detail but a bit overpopulated with its 30 significant roles. This Who’s Who of British film includes Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Clive Owen and Emily Watson among many others. It is a sort of Upstairs Downstairs which attempts to examine the English system whilst poking fun at Hollywood. Interestingly, Eileen Atkins, who plays Mrs Croft the cook in the film, was co-creator with Jean Marsh of the 1971 TV series Upstairs Downstairs.
Although enjoyable and eminently watchable, the film has multiple characters and multiple plots and this makes for a slightly uneven experience. It is very much an ensemble piece where the plot is subservient to the characters. Altman used two cameras in every scene and asked the actors to improvise and this shows at times. You are also left wondering what genre the film really is, comedy of manners or murder mystery or maybe a bet each way. Certainly Stephen Fry is way over the top as the investigating detective. Nevertheless you are drawn into the dining room and the inner workings of the house and the period. It is also fascinating to see how an American perceives English society.
Gosford Park has already won many awards including Golden Globes for Best Director and for Maggie Smith as Best Supporting Actress. The film has been nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Film.