If you come to Gosford Park expecting an exercise in “Altmanism” from the maverick filmmaker, chances are you’ll come away disappointed. Apart from the multiple storyline, the huge ensemble of stars and the occasional zoom shot, the film is not traditionally Altmanesque in look or physical approach, which is a maverick gesture in itself! At bottom, Gosford Park is a classic mystery thriller that seems more like what you might expect were Merchant-Ivory to have a go at the genre. But that doesn’t quite peg the film either, because it’s at once more good-natured, playful, and darker than most Merchant-Ivory productions. The film it most resembles — oddly enough — is Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic, The Rules of the Game, and it’s unlikely this is wholly accidental, since both movies deal with a shooting party weekend in the country among the wealthy. Similarly, both involve an examination of the society that makes up such an event and both involve a death. (There is one other similarity in this last regard, but to address it would spoil the mystery.)
Gosford Park was based on an idea by Altman and Bob Balaban (who plays a Hollywood producer in the film) and was turned into a screenplay by actor Julian Fellowes. It’s clear almost at once that all involved know and love their mystery movies. They certainly know the classic formula for structuring one. It’s a typical weekend-in-the-English-country-manor approach (the manor being the same house we’ve seen in Ken Russell’s Gothic and Lady Chatterley, as well as in Kenneth Branagh’s Peter’s Friends; Stephen Fry, who plays a police detective in this movie and Peter in Branagh’s film, must’ve felt right at home). Several things are intriguing. The set-up and the foretelling of a pending murder and who will be murdered is absolutely classic, right down to the fact that the victim (a splendid performance by Michael Gambon) spends the first few reels just begging for any number of people to off him.
What’s most fascinating, though, is the historical authenticity of the film. One of the guests is Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who takes a chiding from Maggie Smith’s (who steals every scene she’s in) character over what a bomb his latest film, The Lodger was (and it was). Moreover, Balaban plays a fictionalized version the man who produces Charlie Chan movies — he’s there doing research for Charlie Chan in London– and, despite the fact that November 1932 is a bit early for this and unrealistic mention is made of borrowing big-name stars for the film, guess what? They actually got it right. The film he’s talking about is indeed Charlie Chan in London. The plot is right, the setting is right, names like Alan Mowbray and Ray Milland are mentioned. It’s a small thing, but it speaks well of the sincerity of Altman and company and their respect for the genre. (That the motive for the murder — vengeance for a crime of years earlier — is the standard approach in the Charlie Chan novels is an interesting touch.)
And while Gosford Park is very much a playful film that lovingly parades the conventions of the mystery film — the set-up for the murder; the fact that nearly all the characters have something to hide; a standard plot-twist concerning the crime; Stephen Fry’s pipe-smoking, trench-coated Scotland Yard man who will never solve the puzzle — there is a deeper, darker side to the proceedings that is ultimately perfectly Altmanesque. As the film progresses and the characters secrets and secret sides start to emerge, throwing us into a world where everyone seems to be hiding behind a public mask, it becomes clear that Altman recognized that the classic murder mystery afforded him a ready-made structure for the kind of examination of the human condition for which he is best known thematically. Altman wisely never lets this side of the film get in the way of the fun of the puzzle or the terrific performances of an astonishing cast that must include almost everyone in British Actors’ Equity! It’s the best damned murder mystery since Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express in 1974 — and the fact that it’s something more than a mystery is the icing on the cake.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Gosford Park Sunday, June 29, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.