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IN SHORT: Like playing a game of Clue at the pace of Monopoly. We like both. [Rated R for some language and brief sexuality. 137 minutes]
Our father tells the story of one hot summer in the Catskills mountains of New York, at one of those hotels where families would go for the two months-long school break. The dads would drive up for the weekend and, on one of those weekends, our grandfather put his son in a row boat, headed for the middle of the lake, threw him in, and rowed back to shore. Robert Altman's films are kind of like that. Swim or die. Drown in the torrent of multiple characters and relationships and, in some cases, accents so thick as to be impenetrable or wade through until everything starts to make sense. Once you get to, and past, that point, either Altman scores big or goes down in flames. It is a rare instance when he misses by just a tad, which is the case with his latest film, Gosford Park, a murder-mystery set in the England of 1932.
Being American, we waded through. That takes a good ten to fifteen minutes and tries the patience but, once you get through it, there's more story here than in any three or four standard movies put together. Altman hasn't worked the mystery genre before and doesn't let that get in the way of the his usual ensemble style. While the huge cast affords the opportunity to drop surprise after surprise upon you, there is no big "Ah HA!" moment -- the kind where the police detective thrusts his finger into the air. That's because the detective is an idiot. Perfectly Altman.
Gosford Park is the ancestral home of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), a Lord so bloody rich that every relative in his line is living off his benevolence (and the old coot is getting a bit teed off about all that mooching). Keeping the aging Bill happy is his lovely, stylish and half his age wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Sylvia became Bill's wife through a very amusing and previously secret gamble involving her sisters Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) and Lavinia (Natasha Wightman). Lavinia's husband Anthony (Tom Hollander) is involved with Bill in a speculative enterprise. Geraldine's husband Raymond, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) we, for the most part, ignored. Sir William is tired of financing these ne'er do wells, and he intends to begin shutting off the taps.
Out of place in the group is the American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), in the company of William's cousin Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), a film star. Novello is more than happy to "sing for his supper" since his last film, "The Lodger," bombed [no email, we got the joke]. Weissman's "man," Harry Denton (Ryan Phillippe) keeps himself busy by crossing the line between "his place" and "their place" more than once, as well as attempting to bed every femme that crosses his path. He has secrets, as do all the above stairs residents, and all of 'em leak out into the open after Sir William is found murdered in the library. Lest you jump to the conclusion that the butler did it, Jennings (Alan Bates) does have a police record, the staff knows it, and certain adoring under-maids will do anything to protect their beloved understairs boss.
Rounding out our merry group of suspects are Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), who runs the house and Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), who oversees the kitchen staff. There is no love lost between this pair for reasons dating back to The Great War. Lingering anger and resentments play out, all in plain view of the newest servants attending to the "proper" English upper-class: Mary MacEachran (Kelly MacDonald), the inexperienced, and therefore "cheap" maid hired by the eminently proper Aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) and the very handsome Robert Parks (Clive Owen), who has changed masters in midstream now serves Lord Stockbridge. Since Mary is our guide to the confusion, it is only fitting that she have a guide to help explain it all to everyone. That job falls on the shoulders of the Head Housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson), who tracks the gossip and is always in the right place when Lord William needs to cop a feel, or dump his beloved dog Pip into the arms of someone who cares.
Into their midst comes Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) and we've already dealt with the former. The revelation of the mystery doesn't pack as much punch as we'd hope, but then again, we never said that there was only one mystery to solve.
OK, everyone take a deep breath. There's a lot more to Gosford Park but that's the gist. One dead sugar daddy and a whole lot of dependents who had motive. Everyone involved does a good job but the greatest pleasure is delivered by Maggie Smith, who carries herself with all the quiet arrogance of an upper class Brit who still sleeps at night content in the knowledge that Britannia still rules the waves. Maggie's Constance is more than just set in her ways; there are certain rules that concern behavior and she, of the ruling class can only prove that class by enduring these strangers and, heaven forfend, their American friends, too!
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Gosford Park, he would have paid . . .
dateflick level. Something this overly complex may not sit well inside the mystery genre but so what? Simply, Altman delivers intelligence on the screen.
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