It’s a little known fact that I have a fear of elderly, female, British comedians. I’ve always found rapidly aging ladies with English accents attempting humor disturbing. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem with the much-touted Robert Altman comedy, Gosford Park, since apparently humor is not included.
Set in 1930, Gosford Park details the lives of upstairs guests and downstairs servants at a weekend getaway in the country house of Sir William McCordle. Present are a wide variety of nobility, big money, and kitchen staff played by a veritable who’s who of the British theater. In some ways, Gosford Park is meant as a comedic murder mystery, though frankly the film takes so long to get around to the actual murder, that only the ever present and painfully obvious “beat the audience over the head with bottles of poison and shiny knives” foreshadowing leading up to the murder, manages to keep the film at all on that track.
Though Director Altman is running around calling it a comedy, Gosford Park is nothing of the sort. If there were any points at which the audience was supposed to laugh, apparently most of them went far over the heads of myself and my fellow moviegoers. What Gosford Park really is, is an obsession over the minute details of servant life and the relation between serving staff and the upper class. This in itself is actually quite interesting… or it would be if it was weaved in and out of some sort of intelligent and engaging narrative.
Sadly, Altman has become so obsessed with examining this servant/master relationship, revealing the differences between the staff downstairs and the lazier-faire nobility upstairs, that he has forgotten to really take the time to develop some sort of watch-worthy story to go along with it. It’s only in the waning half of the film that Altman suddenly looks up and realizes he’s wasted a fairly sizable portion of his audience’s life and decides to throw in a murder to liven things up. Though this is clearly only done as some sort of afterthought to legitimize all the time he’s spent pointlessly developing characters and relationships, at least it gives something to watch. Truthfully once the body gets a little cold, the film actually gets a little life, though it ultimately goes nowhere and still for the most part forgets to be funny.
While the acting may be superb, even most of the characters seem bored with the film they’ve been written into, at least until the corpse hits the floor. Up till then, only Ryan Phillippe brings any life at all to the screen. I quickly found myself begging for Altman to put him up for just another minute so I could make it through to the credits. Thank god they killed that old fart because even with Phillippe’s help I doubt I could have long lasted. After that little death, Gosford leaps up and works in a few genuinely delightful little moments. But in the end, that's never quite enough.
Gosford Park is a sad example of exactly what’s wrong with the kinds of films most critics seem to pick as their “darlings” these days. It’s also just exactly the kind of movie making that unfairly gives independent films a bad name. Director Robert Altman managed to gather up an amazing group of actors, throw them a potentially interesting story, and toss it all in the shitter so he could examine some farting old duke’s lap dog. No wonder in most people’s minds he is still the guy from MASH.