Robert Altman (1975's "Nashville
," 2000's "Dr. T and the Women
") can be such a showstoppingly astute filmmaker that it's somewhat understandable when he occasionally falls off the wagon (1994's "Ready to Wear"). "Gosford Park," a study in the social class system of 1932 with a whodunit murder-mystery thrown in for good measure, proves to be one of his largest miscalculations to date.
At the British estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a smorgasbord of aristocrats and their servants gather for a weekend shooting party. As the wealthy guests, including Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), and Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) get acquainted with each other, so does the Countess' fresh-faced maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald) with the various workers of the house downstairs. When a shocking murder occurs in the study, an investigator (Tom Hollander) is brought in to find out the circumstances surrounding the brutal death.
Since the murder does not occur until "Gosford Park" is almost ninety minutes in, no suspense is created and no intrigue is generated out of the plot twist. What could have been a more serious-minded version of the fabulous 1985 comedy, "Clue," is so uninvolving as to be a chore to endure. The question of who the killer is is disclosed at the end, but comes off as needlessly contrived and--like the rest of the film--boring.
In penning the confused and shallow screenplay by Julian Fellowes, Altman's direction has been rendered fatally lifeless. There are such a vast array of characters (some of whom look strikingly alike) that not nearly enough time is spent with any one of them to grow attached, including the central heroine, Mary. They are all surface and no depth, without any humanistic qualities. Lady Sylvia, for example, is presented as nothing more than frigid and humorless. Kristin Scott Thomas (2001's "Life as a House
") looks like a deer caught in the headlights, much like most of the cast does with nothing substantial to work with.
If anyone gets a solitary moment to step out from the crowd, it is Emily Watson (1998's "Hilary and Jackie
"), as head housemaid Elsie. The understated friendship she forms with Mary is nicely crafted, if more or less lost in the heavy stream of supporting players. Meanwhile, Ryan Phillippe (2001's "Antitrust
"), as Weissman's peculiar valet, Henry Denton, is way out of his element as he takes on a poor British accent while trying to hold his own next to his more accomplished costars.
For a while, "Gosford Park" appears to be setting up a fascinating look at the hierarchy of a household of upper and lower-class citizens. There is an insightful early dinner sequence that portrays the different eating quarters of the patrons, but this interesting angle to the material becomes muddled soon after.
Nearly all aspects of "Gosford Park" are flat-footed and dull. There is little energy brought to the proceedings, and the conclusion only leaves one scratching their head about what the point was of the last 137 minutes. Considering the strong cast that was gotten to fill the ensemble, the picture is a waste of time for everyone concerned. And as for the usually great Robert Altman, this is a terribly disappointing directing effort.
©2001 by Dustin Putman