Gosford Park is a film released in late 2001, created by the much-acclaimed director, Robert Altman. He co-produced and directed the movie, and Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay. The movie is set in the year 1932, a time 14 years after the end of the First World War - a time in which the gap between the rich and the poor was very great, due to the Wall Street Crash and the following Great Depression.
It is November 1932 and Gosford Park is the magnificent country estate to which Sir William McCordle invites a somewhat eclectic group to a shooting party. Sir William is quite the randy old goat and none too well liked by many of his guests. Even less charming is his ice-queen of a wife, Lady Sylvia. The group includes a Countess, a First World War hero, one of the British singing stars of the era - Ivor Novello - and even a Hollywood film director, who makes the Charlie Chan mystery movies. There is a great contrast between the guests assembling in the ornate drawing-rooms above, and the maids and valets, who, along with the house servants, fill the maze of kitchens and corridors below-stairs. But something more sinister is afoot; both among the bejewelled guests lunching and dining at their considerable leisure, and in the attic bedrooms and stark work stations where the servants labour. Part comedy of manners and part mystery, the film is above all a moving portrait of events that bridge generations - class, secrets, snobbery, etiquette, blood sports, tragic personal history which all culminate in a murder. (Or is it two murders?)
A whole host of household-names play the characters in Gosford Park. The cast ranges from Dame Maggie Smith as the Countess of Trentham to Ryan Philippe, who plays Henry Denton. At the beginning, the film runs at quite a pace, and can be difficult to keep up with, particularly when the film is introducing all of its 23 main characters. The film is intriguing – although it is primarily a whodunit, the murder does not occur until quite late in the film. It is more a comedy of manners, giving the audience a view as to what life was like in a stately home at the time. This almost voyeuristic view is very appealing, and entices the viewer into the relationships between the characters very quickly.
The cast is separated into two sets of people – those above stairs and those below stairs. The people above stairs are the guests, and the owners of Gosford Park, while those below stairs are the servants, maids and valets. This segregation is employed right up to the closing credits. It is clear to everyone that it is the servants' duty to take care of their masters, and housekeeper Mrs Wilson remarks, with only a hint of bitterness, 'I am the perfect servant. I have no life'. The hierarchy of the characters above stairs is prominent, but it is matched and bettered by the hierarchy below stairs. This is particularly noticeable by the way that the valets and maids of the guests are referred to by their employers' names. Furthermore, when the servants, valets and maids sit for dinner, they sit in the same places as their masters do at the gilded table above stairs. A simpler explanation is that it rains on both the rich and poor. Only the poor get wet, due to them having to hold umbrellas and create awnings to stop any rain from soiling their employers' clothes.
As the film progresses, the audience starts to learn more about the characters, both above stairs and below. They reveal secrets, which they believe could be damning if they got into the wrong hands. For example, one family is terrified that the news will get out that they do not have a personal maid, and that they are in reality quite poor. Another character is worried that his secret will get out – that he never fought in the First World War, and was, in fact, a conscientious objector. Certain people are even blackmailing each other! Everyone tries to portray themselves as perfect, but, in reality, almost all have secrets. Below stairs, head housemaid Elsie is conducting a none-too-discreet affair with Sir William. Mrs Wilson and cook Mrs Croft maintain an animosity that stretches back for years. It is these relationships that really make the film so watchable, for, just as in any good comedy of manners, the characterisation is key. This is an area in which Gosford Park excels.
After the murder occurs, a somewhat incompetent Inspector (played by Stephen Fry) enters the house, disrupting what seemed like such an idyllic situation with a murder inquiry. However, it is lucky for him that his assistant is more capable, and guides him through, even when the Inspector incriminates himself by putting his own fingerprints on the murder weapon! His character is a true sign of the times; the inept police force could do little to incriminate the rich.
Acclaim and Awards
Comparisons are bound to be drawn with Upstairs, Downstairs, the long-running English television show, of similar plot, and also with a few other films. However, Gosford Park is quite different, and adds a whole new dimension to the genre of murder-mystery films. For you see, Gosford Park isn't just a murder mystery. Both a comedy and a drama, a mystery and a historical film, Gosford Park blurs the lines between these types of film, creating a film which cannot be boxed into any particular genre, and is all the better for it.
In 2002, Gosford Park was nominated for four Oscars. Two were in Best Supporting Actress with Helen Mirren (playing Mrs Wilson in the film) and Maggie Smith (who played the Countess of Trentham) being nominated. One was in Best Picture and the last in Best Original Screenplay. Although Gosford Park did only win one of the Oscars it was nominated for, in Best Original Screenplay, it was richly deserved, as the writing, especially considering the scale of the project, was exquisite.
Gosford Park is an excellent film. It mixes genres, but does so successfully, and in doing so creates a unique sense of atmosphere. By seeing into the characters' personal lives, the audience really gets to feel as if they know them on a personal level. The costumes succeed in being both elegant and accurate, as does the musical score. From the heat of the cooks' kitchens, to the glamour of the library, the scenery is also exceptional. Although at times it can be a little difficult to grasp, the attention to detail, in particular when clues are given, is excellent. Keeping up with the intricate plot can also be taxing, and watching the film a second time would be advisable, particularly as miscellaneous clues or details that would have been missed on an initial viewing would become apparent. Only one question remains - whodunnit? Well, to answer that one, you'll have to go and see the film for yourself.