Warning! Mild Spoilers Ahead!
Before he gave the world Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes made a brilliant film that could very easily be considered the little brother of Downton. One could even call it, just as Miami Rhapsody is to Sex and the City, a film prototype of the television series to come. Filled with quick wit, pomp and circumstance, and Maggie Smith’s piercing looks, Gosford Park is a cozy romp into British peerage. Now, sure, the mansion in Gosford is nothing compared to Highclere Castle, the home of Downton. That said, Wrothman Park, where the exteriors of Gosford and a few other scenes were shot, is an admirable facade, giving great respect to the classes of guests that converge under its roofs for a weekend of shooting, bridge, and, because we’re in a giant mansion in the thirties, murder.
Which brings us to cast. Gosford Park is a glittering assemblage of Britain’s greatest stars, including Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Richard Harris who would go on to play Professor Dumbledore in five of the Harry Potter movies alongside Dame Maggie Smith, also in Gosford Park . When it comes to secondary cast, we’ve got an adorable Ryan Phillippe, Emily Watson and Charles Dance, who American audiences now know as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones. So often, British stars are used to make characters in an American blockbusters evocative, making Gosford Park a joy to watch, as all these greats don’t have to deal with silly costumes or synching with CGI magic. All they have to do is act, and in this film they act like there’s no tomorrow. Also keep a lookout for a young Clive Owen smouldering below stairs.
Julian Fellowes is a genius. He has such a sense of timing, of nuance. Wielding this amount of characters, as he also does in Downton Abbey, is daunting just to watch. I can’t imagine writing them all and keeping track of their storylines. And yet, Mr. Fellowes manages with great ease. From the the most common of chamber maids to the master of the house each character is drawn with such attention and warmth that every player feels necessary, not a single wasted character in the bunch.
The story, like any aristocratic bunch of blue bloods, is twisted and at times cumbersome. Much is played off screen, leaving the viewer to figure out for themselves that Charles Dance and Richard Harris are brothers in the film. But those ambiguous facts make the viewing of this film all the more enjoyable. Beyond the core mystery of who killed the head of the house and why, is the mystery of how everyone is related. The movie culminates in an unexpected reveal that comes after what the viewer thinks is the climax. It’s a joy for attentive movie goers, over-thinkers, and film nuts.
The attention to detail is as perfect as expected. Not a napkin or diamond is out of place, madam’s hot chocolate waiting for her just as she’s about to go to bed. Even the dropping of a Bloody Mary on muddy cement (and its almost instantaneous cleaning) is done with such panache one can’t help but read something of the doomed fate of the English gentry in all that red and brown liquid mixing together among the broken glass.
Gosford Park makes life in the English countryside look just as glamorous as it was awful. Shared bathrooms, washing clothes in a basin, and nearly getting shot while hunting birds, let alone all the hangers-on clamoring for your money. Shit was rough back in the day. That said, Gosford Park depicts the pitfalls and luxuries so well that I can’t say I wouldn’t give up the Internet and pool for cold water basins and nights of classical music.
If you’ve seen this movie you totally get what I mean. They’ve been showing the movie a lot on the premium channels, and whenever it’s on, I can’t help but see what’s going to happen, for with such a overlapping and nuanced stories built around numerous complicated characters, Gosford Park is one of those movies that unfolds anew with each re-watching. Every time I see it, I learn something new, another layer of the onion is revealed.