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:: Gosford Park

Imagine one of those old Agatha Christie movies, take out Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, give it a tremendous cast, a naturalistic directing style and make the murder occur over half way through instead of at the start and you will have imagined Gosford Park.

Robert Altman, an American director (The Player, Short Cuts), has moved over the ocean to make a quintessential British film. Altman pioneered the long take; overlapping dialogue and multi strand plots. Gosford Park does not stray from those elements, but instead of scrutinising the behaviour of American fashion aficionados (Pret-a-Porter) or Hollywood movie moguls (The Player), Altman sets his cameras upon the British upper classes and their servants in 1930’s England.

People gather for a shooting weekend at the manor of Sir William McCordle. Almost all of them rely on him for their income and want to get something more out of him. There are no real surprises in the plot. There is a murder, but the clues are well sign posted, and since it comes so late in the film the real interest has to lie with the characters. Unfortunately there are just too many of them, their concerns too abstract, and so you are left to marvel at the period detail, the odd habits of the rich, the struggling lives of the people who serve them.

The cast is huge; most of them talented and well known actors. As a result, I spent much of the first hour of the film trying to work out who was supposed to be who and being surprised by casting decisions such as Helen Mirren being a maid rather than one of the upper classes. Even at the end of the film I was still surprised to find out some characters were related. The performances are, of course, all excellent, and whomever your favourite is among the cast, you will wish you could have seen more of them, as nobody gets as much screen time as their stature would normally command.

Conceived by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban, who also plays Morris Weissman, a Hollywood producer of murder mystery films (an in joke Altman couldn’t resist), much of the dialogue was improvised. Each actor is fitted with a radio microphone and can talk over other actors. The result is a very naturalistic feeling that we are more used to in films about modern life, making it seem like we are really there, in Gosford Park.

Altman won a Golden Globe for his direction and no doubt deserves it, just for handling all of those acting egos in the one space for so long. But despite all the good crafting and good performance, Gosford Park remains an average film. It doesn’t affect the audience and it doesn’t surprise with cinematography or plotting.

Screening on general release