Posts Tagged ‘dozens of much-loved British thesps’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 14th 2002:

On paper, Gosford Park reads like a traditonal detective story in the Agatha Christie mode. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) lives in a house, a very big house in the country, and one weekend in 1932 hosts a shooting party there. Amongst the guests are his film-star cousin (Jeremy Northam), his blue-blooded but potless aunt (Maggie Smith), and a large number of other upper-class worthies. It rapidly becomes obvious that there are secrets within secrets here, and tensions rise until – gadzooks! – one of those present is murdered! Twice!

The most immediately striking thing about Gosford Park is the cast, which is incredible. The murderer could open up at them with a gatling gun and still be guaranteed to leave at least one theatrical knight, Bafta laureate or Much-Loved National Treasure standing. Apart from Gambon, Smith, and Northam, there’s Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard E Grant, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Charles Dance, Geraldine Somerville, Ryan Phillippe and Bob Balaban. All the people! So many people! And they all go round and round, round and round in their Gosford Park lives!

One of the crucial facts about Gosford Park is that a lot of these people are playing the servants: part of the legion of butlers, valets, housekeepers, footmen, maids and cooks that this society rested upon. This is a departure from the usual formula for this kind of story, especially as the script treats them as being every bit as interesting as their masters and mistresses. The logistical nightmare of dealing with so many visitors (not normally even considered by filmmakers) is neatly illustrated, as are the various arcane rituals of upstairs-downstairs life.

The film is primarily about the upstairs-downstairs chasm in British society and the way the people on either side of it interacted and were dependent on each other. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes may be a toff himself but the film is firmly on the side of the proles, with those in charge depicted as shallow, callous and self-obsessed. The murder itself seems to have been something of an afterthought, included solely for form’s sake. It’s certainly not especially difficult to work out whodunnit, the clues are fairly obvious. But it allows the film to explore its theme more fully, and gives Stephen Fry the chance to ham it up ever so slightly as a well-meaning but dimwitted police inspector, so let’s not grouse.

Fry’s is only one amongst many well-judged performances, as you might expect from such a cast. Not everyone gets the material they perhaps deserve – Derek Jacobi only seems to have about eight lines, for example – and so there seems to be a good deal of fighting over scraps. Kelly Macdonald is very impressive in the closest thing the film has to a lead role, Michael Gambon makes the most of his chances as the host, and Maggie Smith quietly goes into top gear and starts stealing every scene she appears in.

There’s not much wrong with Gosford Park at all: it’s intelligent, witty, and superbly written and directed. If the sheer size of the ensemble is a little overwhelming at first, well, stick with it, it all sorts itself out eventually. And if the murder-mystery elements are a little straightforward and undercooked, just accept the fact that you’ve been conned into watching a finely observed drama, rather than a period pastiche. A classy piece of work, in every sense of the word.

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