Saturday, January 14, 2012

Gosford Park Illustrates Both Sides Of The Social Mirror!

The Good: Most of the acting, Elements of characterization (when characters actually are granted character here!).
The Bad: Direction, Far too many characters
The Basics: Quick camera cuts and an abundance of characters makes Gosford Park a less than inspired murder mystery.

Every now and then, there comes a film we want to like. Right out, we want to be prejudiced toward it and feel like we want to recommend it on some intangible level alone. Gosford Park was one of those films for me, when I first picked it up. Then I watched it.

Gosford Park is, most simply, a story about London in 1932 when several upper class folks get together for a shooting party and bring their servants. The film is split between the world of the rich and those who wait upon them. Rather cleverly shot, there is not a single scene that does not have a member of the serving staff present to witness the actions and words of the wealthy. Being that this is more than just a social treatise, there are all sorts of intrigues that appear to center around Sir William McCordle, whose estate the action of the film occurs on. The intrigues include questionable heredity, questionable marital status, infidelity, promiscuity, and questionable social standing as well as economic shortages and professional envy. The plot reaches a peak when McCordle himself is killed. All of the intrigues lead any one of the characters to have a solid motive for murder.

And there are a ton of characters. There are no less than eleven wealthy primary characters and their servants. At a minimum, then, there are twenty-two people competing for airtime in this two hour, eighteen minute flick. There's a reason I only mention Sir William; there are too many others to mention to do justice to the characters. In fact, I believe it impossible to give a description (or even listing) of the characters that would make the film sound either remotely interesting or without giving everything away. Either way, the list would be quite long.

Therein lies one of the film's major problems. There are too many characters to keep track of. I'm not saying that like some nincompoop; I have an eye for detail that noticed the bottle of poison in the first scene and that it was moved to the left side the next time it was seen. The problem was not in the details, it was in the sheer number of people to attempt to keep track of. Several of them look similar enough to be problematic.

In this case, I think part of the fault sits with the film's director. I know it's heresy to claim Robert Altman isn't the best director in the universe, but in this particular film, his directing is problematic. In an effort to create an atmosphere that is filled with movement and the sense of busy urgency like that of a waiting staff - which Altman does wonderfully here - he sacrifices the chance to focus on the characters and deliver any genuine sense of personality to the characters.

The lone exception to this is Mary, the servant to the Countess. Mary becomes the focus of the film as the only one who seems to be able to put together the truth about the murder and a few other of the plot lines. On a character level, this is problematic because there is another character whose entire place in the film seems to be to live both sides of the wall. His name is Henry Denton and his character would have been an ideal one to figure everything out as he lives - in the film - as both a servant and later as a man of some importance in the social circle upstairs.

But, this is not the way the film goes. It becomes Mary's film as she unwittingly puts together the pieces in the murder that the arrogant Inspector never does. Bully for her.

The main problem is that it's hard to care who committed the murder because Sir William was unlikable and everyone wanted him dead. But more than that, any of the people who could have killed him never live up to their full potential of being even a remotely interesting or developed character.

Conversely, the acting in Gosford Park is wonderful. Mary is played wonderfully by Kelly McDonald. She makes the role both naive and knowing, balancing the two with facial expressions and subtle eye movements that clue us in to her very thoughts. The always wonderful Emily Watson appears as one of the head servants doing her usual fabulous job of being something more than simply eye candy. And while the film is littered with wonderful actors giving great performances, - the list truly is too long to go into - Richard E. Grant steals every scene he's in as George. Not the best character necessarily, but well played by Grant and every time he's on the screen, his presence demands attention.

So, who would like this film? Beats me. I think it's ideal for people who like those stuffy PBS BBC imports. It's slow, confused on the character level and sometimes melodramatic. But it does have moments of humor and it is a murder mystery. Did it grab me? No. I think The Usual Suspects and Bound (reviewed here!) are far superior. But if you wanted the 1932 stuffy British slow to develop answer to the action and mystery of those films, well then, I suppose Gosford Park would be a place you might want to hang out.

For other British dramas, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The English Patient
A Room With A View


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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