Legendary director Robert Altman has taken two dozen of England’s finest actors, a 1930s country house, an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, and British class satire a la Upstairs, Downstairs and created, in my opinion, the best movie of the year. The movie is so complex, and the cast list so immense, that any summary fails to do justice to the film. Every line, camera angle, and character has a purpose, and Altman creates a complex and utterly impressive world.In the great tradition of English country house murder mysteries, a selection of guests from the British upper crust (the “upstairs”) comes to Gosford Park for the grouse hunt and socializing. Equally important, however, are the “downstairs” people, the servants who keep Gosford Park shipshape. As the aristocrats amuse themselves and the servants strive for domestic perfection, the characters are developed, illuminated, and the state of England between world wars is hilariously, warmly, and slyly brought to life. The murder is not the driving force of the plot, but merely illustrates the relationships that compose the social strata.
The movie is all about the characters, and two of the best-played individuals are Best Supporting Actress nominees Maggie Smith as Lady Constance, Countess of Trentham, and Helen Mirren as the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson. Smith is brilliant with her cutting remarks, hilarious dry wit, and amusing eccentricities. Mirren, while less colorful, is also striking with her repressed grief and cool domestic efficiency and authority. These two tour de forces show two intelligent women surviving in a society not quite sure what to make of them, and it’s hard to say who is more deserving of accolade.
Many movies rely on shocks, special effects, and sex to bring viewers back to see the film multiple times. In contrast, Gosford Park uses enjoyable characters and a complex plot to create a movie that must be seen multiple times to be truly appreciated.