Gosford Park remains one of the truly peculiar movies of the 2000s. The film is directed by Robert Altman, and written by Julian Fellowes, and remains their attempt to revitalise the tired “whodunnit” genre. For those that don’t know – the whodunnit genre essentially consists of a bunch of suspects gathering in one location, where one of them is murdered and everyone is a suspect.
And, Gosford Park plays out much like that – in 1930s Britain, the wealthy businessman, William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his family host a hunting party for some friends and family over a weekend. As the guests – and their servants – arrive, William is murdered, and over the course of roughly 2 days, secrets, lies and deception between the guests is soon discovered, as the real murderer is uncovered.
Altman, one of the most prolific American filmmakers of the 70s (although, he was big in pretty much every era), seems like a odd choice for crafting a British 2000s period piece set in 30s England. However, if you think about it, he is actually a really great choice, as this film is his attempt to do a subversive twist on a famed genre, while featuring a huge, sprawling ensemble cast full of big mega-stars (including Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thmomas, Charles Dance, Richard E. Grant, Kelly Macdonald, Clive Owen, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi). In that way, Gosford Park is similar to many of his movies, especially McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts, The Player and The Long Goodbye.
And, just like all of his movies, the film contains some excellently crafted cinematography. Altman is a big fan of the steadicam camera technique, constantly using lengthy panning shots throughout his work. Here, he used two cameras, which constantly moved in opposite directions. Therefore, the cast – many of which were experienced in the world of theatre – had to perform the film like it was play. The cast apparently didn’t really know when the cameras would be on them or not, and therefore, had to constantly to be in character and try to make very few mistakes.
The end result is a very natural, and realistic piece of work. Much like how the Ridley Scott’s original Alien brought realism to an otherwise fantastical genre, here, Altman brings an naturalness to the mystery genre, including overlapping dialogues, background noises, lack of music (diegetic or non-diegetic) and background character actions we otherwise would of missed. It makes us feel like we are peaking behind the curtain of what it is a standard weekend for these people. The film is very similar to the standard Altman ensemble piece – much like Short Cuts and the 70s classic, Nashville – in that there are numerous characters, some of which are changed by the film’s end, many of which who are not changed at all, and carry on business as usual. It makes us feel like we are offered a tiny glimpse into this world we know nothing about, and soon enough, that glimpse will be over.
While the film feels like a standard Altman piece of work in many ways, there is still an unorthodox nature to this one, which is mainly brought on by the script by Fellowes. Often-times Altman films are very similar to Richard Linklater films in that nothing really happens – they are very little on plot, and more centred on character. However, Gosford Park is a very different beast. This film is a written piece of work, and there is a deeply complex and thought-out plot to this. All of the suspects have a well-thought reason for the murder, and many characters have a deep and interesting characterisation.
Gosford Park is a very strange film – like a lot of Altman’s movies, it is a natural movie, but still a deeply-plotted movie at the same time. It is a film about nothing, with a murder in the middle of it. Altman and Fellowes mark a very strange and unorthodox writer-director combination, in a similar vein to when David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin made one of the greatest films of the 21st century, The Social Network. They have contrasting styles, and really shouldn’t work, but, mostly really do.
There are some flaws with this script, however, especially in how it can sometimes be a little too tightly-wound and grounded for it’s own good. If you look at a movie like Knives Out – Rian Johnson’s brilliant and subversive take on the murder mystery genre that came out last year – which is a movie that twists and turns and really subverts the whodunnit genre, but still does it in a way that is really funny and deeply thrilling. Gosford Park never really gets a chance to be extremely entertaining, and that’s a shame, because the best whodunnits really thrill you and and stimulate you.
There is a low-key element to the script. The film is funny, but in a very dry and unassuming way. There is a soft kind of social commentary to this movie, detailing just how snobby and conceited the upper class is, and how they care very little about their servants. There is a bite to this script, an edginess that is missing from Fellowes’ series, Downton Abbey, which is essentially an glorified soap opera.
Gosford Park, although an awards and commercial success when released, feels like it has crucially gone under the radar in it’s two decades since it’s release. And it really shouldn’t of done, because it’s witty, funny, and peculiar in all the best ways. One of Altman’s most underrated movies.