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ISSUE 115 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/1/2002

Take a walk through this ‘Park’

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 1, 2002

"I am the perfect servant. I have no life." This statement is uttered by Mrs. Wilson, the head housekeeper, in "Gosford Park." While I believe what she says, I also think her character, and her life, proves to be the most interesting in the entire film. That's saying a lot, considering that there is a mammoth-sized cast portraying both servants and guests at Gosford Park, an English estate. These characters unite for Robert Altman's take on a 1930s murder mystery. "Gosford Park" is an ornate mesh of "Upstairs Downstairs," "Mystery" and "The Love Boat," and that's what makes it distinctive. On the surface, it's a typical Agatha Christie novel, but in the end, no one really cares "whodunit." The story kicks off with the arrival of Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), the snobbish aunt of Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is throwing a shooting party with her husband, William (Michael Gambon). Other guests include Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), a well-known American actor, and American producer Mr. Weissman (Bob Balaban), a self-proclaimed vegetarian who sports a fur coat and goes out for the hunt. He is joined by his valet (Ryan Phillipe) who seems to annoy everyone, especially when he goes after the women. Things are just as hectic below stairs, where the servants scramble to make everything perfect for the guests. They're headed by Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) who seems to have a chip on her shoulder, especially when she's around the cook, Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). The Countess' maid, Mary (Kelly MacDonald), is a timid new arrival who can't help but be attracted to the mysterious Robert Parks (Clive Owen). Mary is befriended by Elsie (Emily Watson), the maid who is having an affair with Sir William. By the time the murder occurs, well over an hour into the film, we already have a good grasp on most of the characters. When the inspector (Stephen Fry) shows up, we have a better idea whom he should suspect than he does. Not that it really matters. "Gosford Park" isn't about murder or mystery. It's about people. More specifically, it's a believable depiction of what happens when the high and low classes clash, and when people within those classes butt heads. Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes do a credible job of creating equally interesting characters from both sections of the house. There are some standouts, though. It's worth seeing this movie twice just to see how layered Helen Mirren's performance is. Her Mrs. Wilson appears icy at first, but her subtleties ultimately reveal a complex and tortured woman. And Kelly MacDonald has one of the hardest parts. She portrays Mary as shy and introverted, yet believably brave and sexy at the same time. Upstairs, Maggie Smith is a delight as Constance. She provides welcome comic relief, as evidenced by her interactions with Novello. When he hesitates revealing the plot of his new movie, she assures him, "Oh, but none of us will see it." The movie contains many other memorable performances as well, especially Emily Watson as the maid and Ryan Phillipe as a young man who is different from what he initially seems. And then there are characters I haven't even mentioned. If I have any complaints, it's that there are almost too many characters and storylines. But that hardly detracts from the wit and complexity portrayed so beautifully by everyone involved. It's a treat to go to a movie that fancies itself as old-fashioned  especially when it's like nothing I've ever seen before.

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