Park Perfect

obert Altman's Gosford Park is a marvelous satire focusing on both the tragedies of the servant-aristocrat system of post-WWI England and the similarity of the personal relationships among members of both classes. For such heady themes, the comedy is fierce and the audience is lured into both loving the elegance of the film's pretentious upper class as well as loathing the inequitable social order on which such elegance rested. This complex duality challenges, incites and, above all, entertains.

Renowned for his hands-off directorial approach, Altman commands what may be the most impressive cinematic ensemble ever--Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Bob Balaban, Michael Gambon, and even Ryan Phillippe thrive in Altman's improvisation--encouraged atmosphere.

Smith's Countess of Trentham leaves the deepest imprint on the audience--the film can barely keep up with her surprisingly complex snob. For all the details about the Countess we gather from the dialogue, Smith further embellishes her characterization without saying a word. It is one thing to act among a cast of amateurs; it is something else to best the rest of Gosford Park.

The story of the film is no slouch either. In Altman's and Balaban's story, Sir William McCordle (Gambon) throws a shooting party for several important aristocrats, all of whom share a financial relationship with the master of the house. As was customary in 1932, the servants of each aristocrat travel with their lord and live in a parallel world--they have their own relationships and interactions and despite their claims of noble servitude, the lower class can be as gossipy and snobbish as their masters. The depth of these interactions--of both the upstairs aristocrats and the downstairs servants--is key. So key that missing a word of Julian Fellowes' fast screenplay could cost you a major plot point. This is especially true during the third act after Sir McCordle is found murdered in his study. Whodunit? It's all there if you watch this closely.

The film is also shot quite elegantly. There are many visual clues (a missing knife, constant shots of bottles marked "Poison," a mysterious photograph) shown in a variety of lighting schemes and refracted through panes of glass, giving the film an extra patina of intrigue.

The beauty of it all does not distract from the overarching themes. Before he is murdered, McCordle, like the rest of the aristocrats, thinks he is completely in control of the world. Sex, money and people are all interchangeable to the rich and deeply envied by the poor--but because their personal interactions are so similar, we see that the only reason to separate sir from servant is birthright. The murder is a wonderful symbol of how death is the great equalizer.

By way of Gosford Park, Altman serves up a critique of this morally reprehensible worldview and also dismantles the arguments of those that would argue against the aristocracy for the fortune of good birthright.

--By Martin Barna


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