Robert Altman is, in my opinion, a second rate director, the only one of his films that impressed me was The Player. Others such as MASH, The Long Goodbye and Gosford Park were all disappointments.
Gosford Park was Altman’s most successful film, yet I was unimpressed, now I will attempt to explain why.
The film takes place in the years prior to the First World War, it focuses on a aristocratic family and their servants, after the head of the family is found dead in suspicious circumstances many past memories and long hidden stories resurface.
From a technical point of view Gosford Park is a very well made film, it’s not packed with awe-inspiring shots, yet it succeeds in being stylish and atmospheric. A lot of work was put into the camera-work and lighting and it can really be noticed in some complex scenes such as ones covering the whole kitchen showing each servant going about their individual tasks, I can imagine that that scene must have been quite challenging.
The lighting, editing, use of the music none of these aspects were problematic and without them I would have been forced to rate this film far lower.
Yet in one respect this film didn’t succeed, I felt that the director was trying hard to pierce the mystery surrounding the British upper-classes and was doing so from an outsider’s point of view. For me though, it failed, I didn’t feel transported back to those times, in fact I felt very much detached from the events and characters, It felt like I was reading about them with indifference from a history book, maybe this was what the director was aiming for, but in that case it didn’t work with me.
I think this detachment and lack of interest I felt is far more the fault of the script than of the direction, yet I do feel Altman should have involved the viewers more with the events and characters instead of passing everything by in an aloof manner.
A very interesting and promising cast was assembled for this film, featuring popular young actors (Clive Owen, Kelly MacDonald….) and veterans of many films (Derek Jacobi, Richard Grant, Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon,….).
Some of these actors were allowed much time on screen and did great jobs, but many others were extremely disappointing, with only a few lines and only a few minutes of screen time, yet I knew that many of them were more than capable actors. I found this frustrating and disappointing, Altman assembled a very large cast composed of some of the best British actors yet if he had used only a few of them and many supporting actors the result would have been the same if not better for the unknown supporting actors would be more in place and less distracting than major actors.
Sadly with all the acting talent involved, with all the technical prowess of Altman and his crew, the film is still flawed in an irredeemable way by the script.
The script doesn’t try anything overly complex or groundbreaking; it follows a pretty simple and predictable story line.
In the first 40 minutes, the numerous characters (both masters and servants) are introduced, all are given a little background information but I failed to grasp exactly who all these people where and what their places were in the family, this might just be the biggest flaw of the film, the muddled attempt at introducing characters.
As the film combines social critique and murder mystery, I will first focus on the social critique side of the story, I separate the two aspects because they appeared separated in the film, they didn’t blend together well at all.
The social critique was largely directed at the aristocratic family, it showed them in a bad light, with feuds, money problems, but above all it focused on their sexual mores, this aspect was too prominent in my view and aggravated the already complex plot, I can understand that the film wanted the take a penetrating look into British upper class society yet the continuous dwelling on the sexual activities undercut some of the other more interesting aspects of the plot such as monetary issues and the different characters places and power within society.
An aspect of this film that did interest me and that was praised by the critics more than anything else in the film was the way masters and servants were compared and shown to possess similarities and too depend on each other, the relations between masters and servants would have made for a very interesting story line but then a murder is thrown in.
Now if the whole murder mystery side to this film is viewed in comparison to other similar mysteries, it appears very bland and unsatisfactory. Not only was it predictable from the start, it dragged, made no attempts at misleading the viewer or confusing them, and the conclusion was very underwhelming.
The writer, Julian Fellowes gave this brief outline of the plot: "set in a country house in the 30's and to have a murder in there somewhere, but for it to really be an examination of class"
Indeed it did film like the murder was just “in there somewhere”, it seems out of place and failed to progress much, for example take Stephen Fry’s character, the detective, he is easily the most useless detective I’ve ever seen, which is a shame seeing as Stephen Fry is a very good actor and his character could have brought something to the plot.
I can understand why a murder would be included into the script, it’s a great opportunity to reveal past secrets and right past wrongs and is generally a time of upheaval that is far more interesting than an average day at a country estate. But it just failed to pump some life into the film leaving me very disappointed and glad that those 137 minutes were over.
Gosford Park is a well made film with a talented cast, which ultimately failed to involve me in the story or keep me interested due to its muddled introduction, its heavy handed social critique and its bland murder mystery.
Not the worst film ever and is liked by many, yet it failed for me on so many levels.
I’ve deliberately tried not to reveal to much in this review and to keep my complaints to the very important ones, but sadly there are many more problems with this film that I had to leave unmentioned…
Gosford Park ==== 50% (An disappointing attempt)