Friday, April 24, 2015

"Gosford Park"

Gosford Park
Image Credit: Barnes and Noble

If you love whodunits or upstairs/downstairs movies, you'll love "Gosford Park." I'm an Anglophile and love movies about the English monarchy, class system or as I call them, “talkie English things.” Written by Julian Fellowes of "Downton Abbey" fame, there are plots, subplots and schemes in every scene. Similar to Agatha Christie mysteries, everybody has a motive for murder and everything happens in one location in one weekend. The movie takes place in 1932 at an English country weekend shooting party. Gosford Park is an actual park located in Coventry, England.


There's a very large and star studded ensemble cast, most of whom have issues with the soon to be dispatched patriarch, Sir William McCordle, played with delicious, evil glee by Michael Gambon.  McCordle is the polar opposite of his best known character, the kindly Professor Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter.” I had to set up a spreadsheet to keep track of the thirty or so characters to sort out who is related to whom, who is married to whom, and their motives for murder. I’ve included my own observations and put a detailed cast list at the end of this article for your reference.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Maggie Smith has terrific tart commentaries throughout the movie. 

This was the first time I ever noticed Clive Owen, laying in bed reading a book wearing a tank tee shirt.

Ryan Phillippe was beyond smarmy as an American actor that played both sides of the fence and upstairs/downstairs.

Major actors in key supporting roles include Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Tom Hollander, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates and many more. 


I thought that Julian Fellowes was an actor and writer. In addition to “Gosford Park,” he has written “Downton Abbey,” “Young Victoria,” “Vanity Fair” and “Picadilly Jim”. I was surprised to find that he is actually a Baron and member of the House of Lords. This certainly explains why he writes so knowingly about the English class system. That knowledge garnered him an Academy Award for the screenplay of this movie.


Another surprise is that Robert Altman, of all people, directed this very English movie. He is better known for directing “all American“ movies, like ‘MASH,” “Nashville,” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” According to the 2014 documentary by Ron Mann, “Altman,” the director had trouble getting financing because of the large ensemble cast and the ambiguous ending. Altman just went to London and contacted almost every major English actor to make the movie. At the last minute, he obtained funding from the UK National Lottery Premiere Production Fund. The Fund also helped to finance two other great period movies, both written by Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband.”

Altman encouraged his actors to improvise. I'm sure that many of the Shakespearean actors had to do some adjusting.  The scene of the sisters, Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins, comforting each other is a master class in improvisation. Below, check out the interview with Stephen Fry about working with Altman and a great Maggie Smith quote. 

Robert Altman won Best Director from the Golden Globes and was nominated for Academy Award for this movie.

Stephen Fry discussing Robert Altman


The locations are absolutely stunning. English country houses are opulent beyond compare. Several different stately homes provided the luxurious settings. The exterior of the house is located at Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire. Wrotham Park, in Middlesex provided the dazzling drawing rooms.  The bedroom scenes were filmed at Syon house near London.  The exquisite garden folly used for the hunting lunch scene is supposed to be at Hall Barn, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire but I can't find any images to support that claim. Sets were built at Shepperton Studios, Surrey, for the “downstairs” scenes. The downstairs felt like a claustrophobic rabbit warren to me. 


The costumes are positively exquisite! Jenny Beavan, the Costume Designer, won the BAFTA award for Best Costume Design and was also nominated for an Academy award for "Gosford Park." Lady Sylvia’s slinky white with black trim gown is to die for. Clive Owen’s tee shirt isn’t bad either. Ms. Beavan has done spectacular costumes for many period movies including “The Remains of the Day”, “Sense and Sensibility,” “The King’s Speech,” and many more.


Renowned British composer Patrick Doyle wrote the score. Very wisely, he also used six songs composed by Ivor Novello, who wrote for British theatre, as did Noel Coward. The songs sung by Jeremy Northam, who played Novello are:
  • "Waltz of My Heart" - sweetly romantic song
  • “And Her Mother Comes Too" - cute little ditty that was often played by Bobby Short
  • "I Can Give You the Starlight" - lovely sentimental ballad
  • “What a Duke Should Be" - comedic tune poking fun at the aristocracy
  • “Why Isn't It You?" - spritely up tempo piece
  • “The Land of Might-Have-Been" - absolutely haunting melody
Mr. Doyle has also done the scores for a wide variety of films including “Sense and Sensibility,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Brave” and Kenneth Branaugh’s “Hamlet.”

Quotes and Zingers

“If there's one thing I don't look for in a maid, it's discretion. Except with my own secrets, of course.” Maggie Smith (Constance, Countess of Trentham).

“I suppose that life must go on.” Kristin Scott Thomas (Lady Sylvia),as she prepares to go to bed with Ryan Phillippe on the night that her husband is murdered. 

“When was the last time you stabbed a corpse?” Clive Owen (Robert Parks) to Kelly Macdonald, (Mary Maceachren).

“I’m not interested in the servants, only someone with a real connection to the man.” Stephan Fry (Inspector Thompson)

Site Gags

There are quite a few site gags, typical of Robert Altman’s style. My favorites include:

Maggie Smith with cucumber slices on her eyes.

Kristin Scott Thomas wearing a heavy layer of cold cream and thick white moisturizing gloves while setting up a rendezvous with Ryan Phillippe.

Ryan Phillippe’s reaction to having hot coffee poured on his “man parts” and covering up with a pillow.

Teresa Churcher fixing a wedgie after one of her assignations with Mr. Blond. 

Try It, You’ll Like It

Escape to a different time and place watching "Gosford Park." Even at 137 minutes in length, I didn't want the movie to end. I was astounded when the murderer and murder weapon were revealed. No, I’m not going to say who it is. Watch the movie and find out!

About the movie: 

Available for download on iTunes for $9.99
Available on DVD from Barnes and Noble for $9.49
Run time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Released in 2001 by USA Films, now known as Focus Features

Movie Trailer

**Spoiler Alert** - many plot details revealed 

Cast List - Upstairs

Maggie Smith

  • Constance, Countess of Trentham 
  • Aunt of the three sisters: Sylvia, Louisa, and Lavinia
  • Dependent on an allowance from Sir William, which he has threatened to cut off

Michael Gambon

  • Sir William McCordle, husband to Lady Sylvia
  • “Hard-hearted randy old sod” as described by Mrs. Croft

Kristin Scott Thomas

  • Lady Sylvia McCordle, Sir William's wife/widow 
  • Cut cards with her sister, Lady Louisa, to see which one of them would marry Sir William for his money

Camilla Rutherford

  • Isobel McCordle, daughter of Sir William and Lady Sylvia
  • Blackmailed by the not so Honourable Freddie Nesbitt
  • Romanced by Lord Rupert for her money

Geraldine Somerville

  • Louisa, Lady Stockbridge, Sister of Lavinia and Sylvia, wife to Lord Stockbridge
  • Flirts constantly with Sir William

Charles Dance

  • Raymond, Lord Stockbridge, Baronet, husband to Lady Louisa
  • Classic aristocratic snob

Natasha Wightman

  • Lady Lavinia Meredith, sister of Louisa and Sylvia, wife to Anthony Meredith
  • Angry with her sisters for not persuading Sir William to change his mind about a business deal with her husband

Tom Hollander

  • Lieutenant-Commander Anthony Meredith, husband to Lady Lavinia
  • Having severe financial problems. Sir William won’t invest in a scheme to provide boots to the Sudanese army
  • Quite a different character to Cutler Beckett, whom he played in “Pirates of the Caribbean”

Jeremy Northam

  • Ivor Novello, an actor, Sir William's cousin
  • Real person, well known tenor and composer for the theater
  • Beautiful singing voice, recorded live on the set
  • Under utilized in this film
  • Loved him in “Emma” and “An Ideal Husband”

Bob Balaban

  • Morris Weissman, a Hollywood producer
  • Listed as a producer for this movie
  • Chicagoans may know him by his family connections to the Balaban and Katz movie theatre chain which included the iconic Chicago, Esquire and Uptown theatres

Ryan Phillippe

  • Henry Denton/Mr. Weissman, valet to Morris Weissman and Ivor Novello
  • American actor pretending to be a Scottish valet to observe servants to research for a new Charlie Chan film
  • Implied to be bisexual and Weissman’s lover
  • Tries to rape Mary and seduce Elsie

James Wilby

  • The Honourable Freddie Nesbitt, husband to Mabel
  • Married Mabel for her money, spent it and now hates her
  • Blackmailing Isobel so she’ll help him get a job from Sir William

Claudie Blakley

  • Mabel Nesbitt, Freddie Nesbitt's wife
  • Not accepted by aristocracy because her father made gloves
  • Many snide comments made about her wardrobe and lack of a lady’s maid

Laurence Fox

  • Lord Rupert Standish, younger son of a marquess
  • Wants to marry Isobel for her money as he will inherit none

Trent Ford

  • Jeremy Blond, Lord Rupert's friend
  • Trysts with Bertha interrupted by Mary and George on separate occasions
  • Isobel hears him tell Lord Rupert that “he can do better”

Cast List - Downstairs

Helen Mirren

  • Mrs. Jane Wilson (née Parks), housekeeper
  • Mother of Robert Parks, sister of Mrs. Croft
  • Previously a factory worker/conquest of Sir William

Eileen Atkins

  • Mrs. Elizabeth Croft (née Parks), head cook
  • Sister of Mrs. Wilson
  • Previously a factory cook/conquest of Sir William
  • Had a son by Sir William that died from scarlet fever
  • With actress Jean Marsh, created both “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “The House of Eliot”

Alan Bates 

  • Mr. Jennings, head butler 
  • Conscientious objector during World War I

Derek Jacobi

  • Mr. Probert, devoted valet to Sir William
  • Founding member of the National Theatre
  • Played many Shakespearean leads such as King Lear, Richard II, Hamlet 
  • Played the Emperor Claudius in “I, Claudius”

Meg Wynn Owen

  • Lewis, Lady Sylvia’s lady’s maid
  • Very loyal to Lady Sylvia 

Emily Watson

  • Elsie, lady’s maid to Miss Isobel and Mabel Nesbitt
  • One of Sir William’s dalliances
  • Fired when she speaks out of turn while serving dinner

Richard E. Grant

  • George, 1st footman, acting valet to Lord Rupert Standish
  • Criticized by Jennings and Probert for disinterest in his job
  • Pours hot coffee on Ryan Phiilippe to get revenge for Phillipe’s deception
  • Also appeared in “Downton Abbey” as an art dealer trying to seduce Countess Cora

Kelly Macdonald

  • Mary Maceachren, the Countess of Trentham’s lady's maid
  • In a breach of protocol, Lady Trentham calls her Mary rather than Maceachran because she cannot pronounce the last name
  • Born in Glasgow so her accent is authentic
  • I didn’t feel any chemistry between her and Clive Owen when they kissed
  • Also played Helena Ravenclaw in “Harry Potter, Evangeline in “Nanny McPhee” and a lady in waiting to the queen in “Elizabeth”

Clive Owen

  • Robert Parks, Lord Stockbridge’s valet
  • Raised in an orphanage outside London
  • Illegitimate child of Mrs. Wilson and Sir William
  • Went on to tremendous screen success in movies such as “The Bourne Identity,” “King Arthur” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”

Jeremy Swift

  • Arthur, footman, acting valet to Mr. Blond
  • Implied to be homosexual, makes several attempts to become acting valet to Mr. Novello
  • Also plays a butler to the Dowager Countess in “Downton Abbey”

Sophie Thompson

  • Dorothy, maid
  • Unrequitedly in love with Mr. Jennings
  • Comedic talents showcased in “Relative Values” with Julie Andrews and Colin Firth

Teresa Churcher

  • Bertha, kitchen maid
  • Having an affair with Mr. Blond

Adrian Scarborough

  • Mr. Barnes, Commander Anthony Meredith’s valet
  • Disdainful of his employer

Local constabulary

Stephen Fry

  • Inspector Thompson, a policeman
  • An obsequious bumbler
  • Terribly funny as usual

Ron Webster

  • Constable Dexter, Thompson's assistant
  • Very able, long suffering