The Top Ten (or so) Films of the Decade: #8 Gosford Park (Altman, 2002)
I love everything about this movie– which might seem, at first, like an obvious thing to say about one of my favorite films, but it’s particularly meaningful where this one is concerned, for Gosford Park is a movie that attempts so much: It contains multitudes, it juggles an enormous cast of characters and a tangled web of story lines with a greater sophistication than nearly any other movie I know, and it throws equal weight behind everything. There is no character left underdeveloped, no story arc that is not, in some way, rich and resonant.
Altman’s penultimate film– and, in my opinion, his masterpiece– reads very differently in paper than it does on the screen. Technically, one could very truthfully say that this is a traditional British murder mystery, wherein a large number of guests are invited to spend the weekend at a chilly English manor, only to have their holiday shot to hell when their esteemed host– a man whom all of them secretly dislike– is discreetly offed. A bumbling police inspector shows up and comes to the grim conclusion– gasp!– that all of them are suspects.
But the genius of Gosford Park is that the murder plot is almost irrelevant; its significance lies mostly in its use as a structural device, not as the central conflict. The killing doesn’t happen until halfway through the film, and its resolution is deliberately anticlimactic. What makes the movie tick is, well, everything else that happens. And there’s so much happening that it feels like a different film every time I watch. On the first viewing, one tends to be attracted to Helen Mirren’s big revelation at the movie’s end, or perhaps Clive Owen’s dark, brooding secrecy. Subsequently, one might shift focus to Maggie Smith’s hysterical and maddening pretension, or the masked anguish of Kristin Scott Thomas.
I tend to think the key to the movie is Kelly Macdonald: It is through her eyes of innocence and naivete that we see humanity’s cruelty and hypocrisy, but also brief and stirring moments of grace.
And it’s those same eyes– of youthful wonder and close attention– that we are encouraged to watch the movie over and over, for it’s a movie about, ultimately, the things that lie beneath the surface. Class, politics, society, gender, sex, secrets– the film’s themes are many and they are rich, but they are also lurking beneath the surface of this elegant, wise, and witheringly funny movie, one that seems only to grow deeper the more time I spend with it.