Gosford Park

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A body goes limp in the night. A woman screams. Everyone has a motive. Whodunnit? No idea.

The Film: Robert Altman’s murder mystery critique of class divides

The Potable: A build-your-own six-pack from Giant

Guests arrive at an isolated estate in the countryside as a light rain pools in the gravel street. It is a bad day for travel, and the weather, frankly, mirrored what I saw beyond my own window at screening time. If the purpose of film is to serve as an escape for the viewer, then Gosford Park failed right off the bat at pulling me out of my rainy Tuesday funk.

This is, first and foremost, an Altman picture, and it should come as no surprise that the director of Nashville and Short Cuts has put together another large ensemble piece. The characters are crucial, and as such, the film takes its time with introductions. Visitors and house staff alike are given ample airtime, and it is during this first 45 minutes to an hour that I would recommend sneaking in any bathroom breaks.

The most recognizable player here is obviously Dumbledore, playing a man everyone seems to think is a real jackass. He drinks and swears a lot, a man after my own heart, but big deal. The star of the show, for me at least, is the ever-electric Tim Curry. He steals every scene with that manic energy he pulls off so well. A scene thief, perhaps, but could he also be the murderer?

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We’ll get to that. First, while I can’t necessarily fault Altman for this, it’s surprising that Maggie Smith is nowhere to be found. This is the kind of period piece she usually excels in, and her presence would certainly be a welcome contribution. Similarly, any viewer expecting a Bill Murray appearance as FDR will find they have stumbled into the wrong Park, Gosford not Hyde. England is, evidently, awash in lavish country estates. Typical.

But ok, if he couldn’t cast Smith or Murray, at least Altman had the good sense to bag Lesley Ann Warren.

Several new characters arrive late in the movie, though it’s unclear how they arrived since they’re never shown alongside their automobiles.

The story moves along nicely for awhile, but begins to lose its footing once the guests, in their effort to solve the murder, begin stumbling ass backward into secret passages. It’s easy to forget that Altman directed the live-action Popeye, but at least there the cartoon aspect was earned through its creative use of spinach. Gosford Park’s Scooby Doo antics, however, would embarrass even the Sailor Man.

A second murder occurs, a singing telegram girl gunned down in the mansion’s entryway, but this death has precisely zero effect on the plot so it will also have zero effect on my review. I will not mention it again.

The writing, however, is exceptional. Even with all the British accents, I got the definite sense there was some real back and forth.

The most divisive element, by far, is the ending. Every viewer will have their own theory by the time the third act rolls around. Was it pretty boy Ryan Philippe? Tough guy with a heart Clive Owen? The NBC executive from Seinfeld? The guy who wouldn’t shut up with the piano? The film offers its solution, and I’d wager most will find it surprising.

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But wait! Just when you think it’s over and you can finally go to bed, Altman offers an alternative. The film “rewinds,” the clues add up in a different way, and a new murderer is identified.

But wait! If you’re still awake, Gosford Park has a second rewind, one last trick up its sleeve, and a third scenario to consider before the credits roll.

I honestly can’t remember which is which, and frankly each solution only raises more questions (apparently Tim Curry was working for the FBI all along while holding down a steady butler gig? The FBI operates in England? Maggie Smith was in the house the whole time?)

But I suppose this ambiguity is largely the point. Altman isn’t interested in the who or the how, whether it was Mrs. White with a revolver, Mr. Green with a pipe, or Colonel Mustard with some sort of stabbing instrument. He isn’t even particularly interested in the why. In Gosford Park, murder serves as little more than a MacGuffin, a means to examine unjust class divides and personal tragedy.

Verdict: need to rewatch, no spoilers please

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