American director Robert Altman tries his hand at a 1930s British period piece that centers on class struggles among the residents and guests of an English country estate as well as within the world of their trusted servants. Part comedy of manners, part Agatha Christie mystery, the film almost works.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid, Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald), the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend, host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville, Natasha Wightman), their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance, Tom Hollander), her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith), for whom Mary works, British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend, Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban), a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power, the ranks of house servants, personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of, under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates), head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes, we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide, and when they do, it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment, however, and in Gosford Park, the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often, you can't even tell who's who. Still, with all the talent involved, there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance, an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot, gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly, and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary, Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks, who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder, and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam, too, shows off his musical abilities, as the suave, piano-playing, singing Novello. The rest all blend together except, unfortunately, the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe, playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet, is in way over his head.
Interestingly, the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs, Downstairs, which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm, sounds familiar). Sure, it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece, to boot) could pull it off, and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached, you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe, just maybe, Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride, but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.
Gosford Park is entertaining enough, but if you're expecting another Altman masterpiece, you'll be disappointed.