Gosford Park

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Cleolinda: ***

Starring Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Maggie Smith, Kelly Rutherford, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Ryan Philippe, Bob Balaban, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates, Stephen Fry--too many damn people, even for an Altman production, really.

Rated R for some language and some icky master-servant sexuality.

Okay, I saw this one two weeks ago. That's how conflicted I am over this movie, because I did not enjoy it at all when I was watching it. And that makes me feel terribly, terribly stupid. Terribly Philistine. But you know what, people? You're talking to the kid who used to fake sick in high school so she could stay home to catch Remains of the Day on cable. If someone like that has issues with this movie, it's got to be more legitimate than the action fans who complain that it's "too boring and slow," right? Right?

Also, I am now convinced that Robert Altman hates us.

See, that's my main problem with this movie. I'm pretty sure that Altman decided to make it as hard as possible for the audience to identify the characters, just because it would be more "documentary style" and "slice of life" to not have helpful things like character introduction, etc. Let me put it this way: I kept hearing about a "Sir William" and totally thought he might have been one of the guests, until half an hour until the end of the movie when I realized he was
the murdered host. An hour into the movie I realized Kristin Scott-Thomas's name was Sylvia. It wasn't until the end that I realized she was married to the host. Don't you think that's kind of, I don't know, important?  I'm not saying Altman should have slapped nametags on these people; I'm just saying that there are subtle ways to clue the audience into these things.

So yeah; maybe this makes me (and The Lovely Emily, and Friend of Digest Valerie --"That's Isobel!" "No, it's not, Isobel's the daughter!"
"SHHHHHHHH!") an idiot, but I have to call 'em like I see 'em, folks. And it kills me, because it's exactly the kind of movie I should have been able to appreciate--the whole British "Upstairs, Downstairs" thing. And that's another problem I had. Yes, Mr. Altman, the British Upper Classes Are Nasty-Mean and Selfish. Tell us something we don't know, okay? It just seems like piling on at this point. Take a movie like the aforementioned Remains of the Day ("Oh, so you're one of those lace-doily Merchant Ivory fans, are you?" you're thinking. No, I'm an Anthony Hopkins fan, so you shut up now): its indictment of the upper-class is all the more damning for the admission that the Lord Darlington character is a kindly man oblivious to the realities of the world and the consequences of his decisions. Not only that, but ROTD at least shifts some of the responsibility to Stevens the butler: was burying his free will in duty a morally lax choice?

Of course, the Gosford Park servants seem a little more desperate than plummy old Stevens; their employment seems less of a choice, so I give them that. But near the end, Helen Mirren--as Gosford's housekeeper--makes a speech about being "the perfect servant" that I swear is a direct shout-out to Remains of the Day. Only it's a lot less morally complex. I don't know; maybe I was missing the psychological nuance because I was too busy trying to figure out WHO THE HELL EVERYONE WAS. And that's another thing: I was able to figure out who everyone "downstairs" was, and their stories were much more engaging. Altman barely skims the "upstairs" stories, and even then, with a jaundiced eye. I think the American's playing favorites here. Again, if your entire point is that those pommy bastards upstairs aren't nice, well, here's a quarter: Go call someone who hasn't seen Merchant Ivory movies.

Which is, by the way, the main audience for this film, the Merchant-Ivory crowd; Gosford Park is like an unholy alliance of Remains of the Day and Clue. I'm serious--right down to the multiple-murder ("In the study! With poison! No! Stabbing!"). I will say this, though: Gosford Park was horrible in the theater (it also looked like hell, which I attribute to our craptastic art-house theater--it wasn't even framed properly on the screen), but it will probably be an extremely good DVD rental. Also, watch it with friends and take notes on who's who. Because there are a lot of performances that are worth the price of a rental: Jeremy Northam's Ivor Novello (a real person, by the way), cannily singing for his supper; the sublimely catty Maggie Smith; wonderful performances by Emily Watson and young Scottish actress Kelly Rutherford; Clive Owen, whom I'd heard about and never seen in action, and let me tell you, this man oozes charisma even as a valet, so keep an eye on him; and my personal favorite, Helen Mirren's crusty but vulnerable "perfect servant." Which is why I'm giving this movie 3 stars after all: I have a horrible feeling that I'm the idiot here, not Altman.

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