"Gosford Park," Robert Altman's latest film, intricately weaves from one character to another, setting the groundwork for a murder mystery that is serious, thought provoking and funny.
Set in 1932 Britain, William McCordle, played by Michael Gambon, and his wife Lady Sylvia McCordle, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, are hosting a shooting party, with a guest list that includes members of the British upper class, Hollywood filmmakers and a countess.
Altman uses his characters as if they were pages in a book, turning from one to the other, unearthing more and more personal information on each visit. The control of so many characters who have detailed speaking roles throughout the film is done to perfection. Learning about each character is the backbone to the film, lending proof as to why a murder eventually happens and to whom.
"Gosford Park" moves from upstairs - the wealth and pretension of the guests - to below the stairs, introducing maids, valets, butlers and cooks - the men and women who hold everything together. As the camera sweeps from one character to another, Altman pieces the film together like a finely tuned jigsaw puzzle, one where every character and situation is equally essential.
When we first meet Morris Weissman, a Hollywood producer played by Bob Balaban, we find out that he is an important little man who is always worried about receiving his incoming calls and is a vegetarian. The subtly ironic, yet hilarious thing about Weissman is that he wears a gaudy fur coat out shooting, yet does not participate in the shoot.
Constance, the Countess of Trentham, played by Maggie Smith, is William's sister who is receiving an allowance from him and acts as if she is the only person on earth. Her dialogue alone propels the film forward with a momentum that is hard to describe. During dinner one evening Constance asks Morris Weissman about the film he is going to make. When he refuses to give up the plot, she responds by saying, "But none of us will ever see it."
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Constance and Morris Weissman are only two of dozens of characters that are strikingly individual yet related by common interests. "Gosford Park" is a whodunit that leaves the viewer guessing because each character seemingly has the same motivation for murder. The film is structured in a way that leaves the viewer thinking by not giving away answers too easily. But when an answer is given it is done with subtle reassurance. Even the detective, played by Stephen Fry, a less intelligent Sherlock Holmes, is dumbfounded but determined to find the killer.
"Gosford Park" is one of Robert Altman's best films and one that will leave you guessing until the end. It is perfectly paced, giving enough time to meet everyone upstairs and downstairs and for the clever plot to unwind gracefully. If you have never seen a Robert Altman film, I recommend that you see this one while it is still on the big screen.