TEA AT FOUR. DINNER AT EIGHT. MURDER AT MIDNIGHT.
In 1999, Robert Altman came up with a new idea for a movie together with actor-producer Bob Balaban: they were going to do a whodunit in Britain. As they were both Hollywood men, they needed to find the right writer and that’s where Julian Fellowes entered the stage. A moderately successful actor in Britain, Fellowes had a talent for writing and immediately delivered what Altman and Balaban were looking for: a mystery set in a 1930s English country house, involving different classes. Fellowes had intricate knowledge of how both upstairs and downstairs functioned. The successful collaboration became Altman’s last great film.
A weekend of hunting and dining
In 1932, guests are arriving for a weekend of hunting and dining at Gosford Park, a country house owned by the wealthy Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his family. Among the guests we find members of the English aristocracy as well as a Hollywood producer (Balaban) and a movie star, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who recently made a thriller, The Lodger, together with a fledgling filmmaker called Alfred Hitchcock.
As the servants prepare for the weekend, it becomes obvious that there are different agendas among the guests – and a secret or two.
Not a straightforward mystery film
As he embarked on this project, Altman was inspired by Jean Renoir and Charlie Chan mysteries; Balaban’s character is in fact in England to do research before making Charlie Chan in London (1934). Film critic Leonard Maltin remarked in his annual movie guide that those stories never needed two hours and fifteen minutes, which is true. But Gosford Park is not a straightforward mystery film; it has much more on its plate, and it’s all worthwhile.
While introducing the characters, Fellowes examines the classes, finding individual stories that transcend those borders but also structures within the two spheres, masters and servants, that maintain status quo. It is a perfect set-up for Altman who keeps the camera moving among a large cast; as always, he makes us feel like guests at a party where we’re trying to figure out everybody’s relationships. One of the film’s standout sequences is the build-up to the murder, as Novello (who was not just an actor, but composer) sits down by the piano to play a few of his merry tunes. They are wonderfully performed by Jeremy Northam and as we listen to him, the camera keeps searching for little dramas in every corner. There’s Maggie Smith complaining about Novello’s music, there’s servants taking a break in the hallway while they listen to the music, there’s someone dancing… and there’s someone grabbing a knife to commit murder.
Fellowes adds a silly sense of humor in the shape of a police detective arriving to look for suspects; played by Stephen Fry, the detective is completely inept, confidently smoking his pipe, never realizing that he’s far from learning the truth. That’s not the only bit of ideal casting; the movie is full of brilliant actors, including Smith as a no-nonsense countess (a predecessor to her work on Downton Abbey); Gambon as the aristocrat who treats his employees like cattle; and Helen Mirren as the housekeeper who runs a tight ship and won’t let anyone close. As for the murder mystery, there’s a touching personal story behind it that leaves us a little wiser near the end.
Downton Abbey, the TV series that Fellowes created in 2010, was originally intended as a spin-off to Gosford Park. Instead, it took on a life of its own. However, fans of the movie will always be able to point out that it never becomes as soapy as the hugely popular series.
Gosford Park 2001-U.S.-Britain. 137 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Robert Altman, Bob Balaban, David Levy. Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay: Julian Fellowes. Cinematography: Andrew Dunn. Music: Patrick Doyle. Costume Design: Jenny Beavan. Cast: Eileen Atkins (Mrs. Croft), Bob Balaban (Morris Weisman), Alan Bates (Mr. Jennings), Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon… Richard E. Grant, Tom Hollander, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Philippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson.
Trivia: Jude Law was reportedly first cast in a role, but dropped out.
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Director. BAFTA: Best British Film, Costume Design.
Last word: “Just the equipment, the artifacts that were invented and manufactured or made during that period were all about serving people. They were fantastic. That stuff doesn’t exist any more. They’re antiques. We had a butler, a housemaid, and a cook who were all in their late 80s who were all in the service during the time the picture takes place. They were on the set all the time. I was determined to get it right technically, so I wouldn’t be criticized by the English. ‘What’s an American coming over here and doing a picture about our culture?’ I wanted to be sure we were right about all that stuff. I had the time of my life doing it.” (Altman, Nitrate Online)