Thursday, 14 March 2013

Gosford Park (2001)

Here we are, in 1999. Writer and producer, Bob Balaban approached Robert Altman and ask him if there was any film that they could create together. Altman responded saying that he would like to do a whodunnit that takes place in a small British country house. They agreed on letting British writer, Julian  Fellowes write the screenplay as he would be more familiar with they location than Altman and Balaban.

After the screenplay was complete the original title was "The Other Side of the Tapestry . Altman consider the title of be too awkward and changed it to Gosford Park. Nobody approved of that title and begged Altman to change it, be he was quite fond of it, and so he put his foot down.

For the casting, Altman developed a massive list of British actors he would like to see in the film. Very few actors on that list did not accept. Jude Law was a big name who was originally intended to star in the film, but he dropped out a short while before shooting and he was replaced by Ryan Philippe. Alan Rickman and Judi Dench are two other British actors considered for role is Gosford Park, and yet, neither of them accepted. Interestingly, the cast of Gosford Park consists of two knights, Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi and it all consists of two dames, Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins.

In order to make Gosford Park into a film, only one set was required. However, that set was required to be a large mansion. And so, Gosford Park was filmed on Syon House. Altman decided he did not want the cameras to focus on much of anything. His plan was to have two camera float around the room in opposite directions, even while they don't focus on anything in the frame. This leaves the audience to decided who and what they want to focus their eye on.

Gosford Park premiered at London Film Festival where it received very high praise. Upon it's release, Gosford Park made approximately $88,000,000 ranking it as Altman's second most successful film since MASH.

Gosford Park was nominated for seven Academy Awards, these include: Best Original Screenplay (won), Two Best Actresses in a Supporting Roles (lost), Best Art Direction (lost), Best Costumes Design (lost), Best Director (lost), Best Picture (lost).

Where does Gosford Park stand today? It still stands in high esteem especially with the increase of British period pieces. Although it will not necessarily grab younger audience members as much as older ones, Gosford Park will remain a popular film. In the future, I can definitely see Gosford Park being considered a 'supplementary classic'. For example, Gosford Park (in my opinion) will become the next The Magnificent Ambersons. That said, the film currently holds a 7.3 on IMDb and a 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Many critics consider Gosford Park to be among Altman's greatest films... but is it really? Read on to  find out.

Gosford Park is the story of a large group of upper-class people in the early 1930s, who come to stay at a country house-mansion. For the most hour and a half of the film we get to know the upper-class folks and their servants. All is dreadfully boring until murder occurs!

In enters a detective who seems to be a little confused with what he is doing. It is not long before it becomes evident that someone will get away with murder... unless the servants are able to pick something up.

Watching Gosford Park is like reading a Jane Austen novel. It is dubbed as high class literature solely for it's social commentary. In Gosford Park we witness a very clear class comparison. The story is told from the perspective of the servants and the upper-class. Here we see how people treat those who are above them or below them in the class spectrum. For example, there is a line in Gosford Park that is sure to give you a chuckle... and yet it sounds absolutely sincere. That line is said by Helen Mirren's character, Mrs. Wilson, "I am the perfect servant; I have no life."

What really drives Gosford Park is without a doubt the massive ensemble cast. I won't bother listing names because the cast will go on forever. In many Altman's films such as Nashville, Short Cuts and The Player, one trick Altman uses to get the audience to enjoy his film is to create a massive cast of actors you are sure to be familiar with. But unlike in The Player, Gosford Park is not all about seeing familiar faces, Altman manages to give every character an equal part. Therefore, we get to admire the realistic acting talent of every cast member. I was quite shocked to witness the truly realistic and believable acting that each and every cast member was able to deliver.

For the first hour and a half of Gosford Park, we sit back and watch the characters gossip about people we don't know. I understand that Altman was trying to have a little fun with us and that it was a manner in which he developed his characters, but surely he could have attempted a more unique style. Gosford Park plays out like a soap opera at times. However, there is certainly a benefit of character development in Gosford Park. I would like to say that there are about forty characters in the film. We recognize about twenty to thirty by the time the film has come to it's completion. In fact, we rely on recognizing the actors in order to remember who everyone is. I do not consider it a good strategy to rely on actors to remember characters because it sucks you out of the film and reminds you that you are watching a movie. To summarize, Gosford Park would have been smarter if it had eliminated a few characters, because by the time you find out who the murder is... you may think "wait... who is that?".

In my previous review of The Player, I mentioned that The Player was not Altman's best work using the camera. Neither is Gosford Park... but it is certainly one of his best jobs with the camera. He uses the camera to cleverly craft the story. I mentioned earlier about how the camera drift off into opposite directions; that is just one of the great techniques. I enjoyed noticing that Altman used several dull colours, for example, he used lots of blacks, whites, gray and browns. I would tend to believe he used these dull colours to symbolize the very boring and typical lives of the upper-class. Robert Altman proves in Gosford Park that he can never be predictable. In perhaps his greatest film, 3 Women, Altman uses very bright and dream-like cinematography. In The Player he made every frame very dark so it was difficult to see everything (why he did this I haven't the slightest idea). In Gosford Park, Altman takes on the time period using candles as a significant forum of lighting. The film's photography uses shadows to overtake the dark and moody feel of the film.

Altman seemed to be a little confused over how to execute the three separate genres, or at least that's how I interpreted Gosford Park. The film functions to a great degree as a drama, but not as a comedy or mystery film. It was advertised as being very light and silly. If you watched the trailer, (you can see it here), does it not look like a comedy? If you read the tagline "Tea at four. Dinner at eight. Murder at midnight," does it not sound like a comedy? If you read the end of the summary on the back of the DVD case "Gosford Park proves that murder can be such an inconvenience?", does it not sound like a comedy? Incorrect! There are very few laughs when you actually watch the film. Perhaps that was an attempt on the behalf of the advertising company to draw more people in. Finally, I have no clue why Altman decided to make Gosford Park into a murder mystery. What seems like a very slow and drawn out BBC-type drama suddenly turns into a murder mystery. The mystery aspect of the film, is not executed very well in my opinion. Allow me to present an example. When we finally get around to the murder scene, we get to see what 80% of the people are doing during the time in which the victim is killed. This eliminates most of the possible suspects, leaving us to have only 20% of the characters be in a possible position to have murdered someone in that time! All you need to do is pay attention, and you can crack Gosford Park. Murder comes out of nowhere in Gosford Park, and it adds nothing to the film.

All in all, Robert Altman creates a well crafted film with great performances despite the fact that their are too many characters and too many genres attached.

Gosford Park,
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring: Michael Gambon, Ryan Philippe and Kristin Scott Thomas
7.5/10 (B+)

1. The Player
2. Gosford Park

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