Gosford Park - rated - SIMMERING (on low heat)

A dream ensemble

This isn't Robert Altman's finest film, but even a lesser Altman film is better than most other films.

In many ways this film is a bit of fluff - but it's interesting fluff. Once again, Altman makes a film that is commenting about film making in general, and Hollywood in particular. There are homages to Martin Scorsese (the banquet table-top in The Age of Innocence), and to Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) - even down to shooting of Michael Gambon during the hunt. And there are deliberate errors. When Bob Balaban (as Morris Weissman) says he is in London researching one of the Charlie Chan series of films, we know that is ludicrous. Those things were made at 20th Century Fox o a shoestring. The idea of travelling to London is just unthinkable. And when Morris considers Claudette Colbert ("Is she British, or just affected?"), Clara Bow, and even Alan Mowbray and Una Merkel, for roles in Charlie Chan - well, they were big stars, and far too big for a B picture. Altman is testing his audience's general film knowledge!

There's a dream ensemble British cast. All are generous to a fault. best in my opinion are Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon (a personal favourite), Helen Mirren, Richard E Grant (who acts the whole thing with his eyebrows and the occasional snarl), and Ryan Phillipe - which is good going for the young US actor in such company.

There's the usual top production values from Altman - great muted cinematography and lighting by Andrew Dunn. & intricate Production Design and Art Direction by Stephen Altman and Sarah Hauldren respectively The detail is wonderful - right down to a bottle of poison.

There are a few wrong notes. In a crucial scene involving Emily Watson as the maid Elsie, I don't think such a maid would have spoken out in those circumstances. It wasn't even that important to her to justify her losing control of herself. Co-incidentally, I was reading Margaret Attwood's "Alias Grace" at the timer, and I was aware of the intense self-control that servants had to exercise in order to keep their jobs.

The other, more serious slip is in the performance of Stephen Fry as Inspector Thompson. The movie descends unexpectedly into Music Hall humour as soon as he arrives, and nothing else in the movie strikes that wrong note. He's a Vaudeville comedian with a sidekick - and it doesn't sit well with the tone of the film until then. I can see he's meant to represent the 3rd class in the film (we've seen lower and upper class, and Thompson is from the middle class). But Fry makes him a buffoon (constantly shown up by his lower class assistant), and it's distracting. I was also disappointed in the off-hand treatment of Alan Bates' character. His dark past was dealt with in a few minutes, when it was more interesting than that.

But to compensate for these slips, there are scenes like the lovely one in which the servants listen, rapt, behind the door as Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam, superb) sings to entertain the bored and jaded gentry.

Finally, I noticed that there was no "No animal was harmed..." disclaimer. I think the pheasants were blown to smithereens - and they probably did kick the dog!

© Michèle M Asprey 2002

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