TEA AT FOUR. DINNER AT EIGHT. MURDER AT MIDNIGHT
When Robert Altman makes a new film, it's always a noteworthy event that gets the attention of critics and audiences alike: large productions with huge ensemble casts of major Hollywood movie stars, playing real people with full, fleshed out characters, each with their own subplots that intertwine only subtly, until the end when it all finally makes sense. In Gosford Park, Altman makes only two changes to this formula: Hollywood stars are replaced by Top British talent that may be unfamiliar to most American audiences, and a straightforward murder mystery supplants his traditionally complicated plot line. It is in these changes, however, where Altman charms his audiences in a new way.
The story takes place in 1932 at a gathering of aristocrats and their servants for a hunting country weekend at the estate of Sir William McCordle. Some time after all the guests are settled in and whose affairs begin to intertwine, one of them is bumped off. While all the characters are well fleshed out, it's Mary, played by Kelly Macdonald, who is the focus of the drama. She's the maid of Maggie Smith's Countess Constance of Trentham, and is being groomed to follow a path to become head servant. After the murder takes place, emotions unfold and secrets from the past are revealed that help the characters - and the audience - solve the mystery. The drama is even more punctuated when Mary's innocence and naiveté is lost as she pieces together the deeper scandal, involving servant-master sexual relations and bastard children.
One of the best aspects of film is how it illustrates that fine line dividing the master-servant social structures, and how often that line is crossed, reminding us that life is just a game of costumes and masks, and we're all the same underneath. While the story was reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, where it's the mystery that captivates the audience, Altman goes beyond the mystery with Gosford Park by using the murder as a vehicle to draw attention to the human condition and class hierarchy.
On the downside, but to no surprise to fans of Altman's work, the movie is often hard to follow. His style of filmmaking involves entanglements of characters and subplots that don't appear to have much to do with one another at first blush, and Gosford Park takes this to the next level. Here, the murder takes place at the climax of this confusion, leaving you rather disoriented in the middle of the 2-hour-plus drama. Fortunately, the tone loosens up when a comedy-dim police inspector basically gets nowhere in his investigation, but the pieces start coming together through the other characters. The good news is that it all seems to come together in the end in a way that didn't require grasping every detail of every scene.
Despite its intricacies and confusing moments, there is so much more to Gosford Park that makes it interesting and enchanting. While it is clearly a sophisticated piece of film work with impeccable acting, directing and design, don't stress about not keeping up with it all the time. Sit back and take it in, and you'll feel satisfied in the end.