BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Blu-ray; 2001; R for violence, language
Best extra: New commentary by critics Geoff Andrew and David Thompson
THE IDEA for one of Robert Altman’s (“M*A*S*H,” “The Player,” “Nashville”) final films came about when his friend, the actor and producer Bob Balaban, phoned him and suggested they work on a project together. Altman, who died in 2006, remarked that he’d always wanted to make an Agatha Christie-type whodunit. Balaban contacted the English writer Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), who came up with a plot line that immediately intrigued the two.
The result was “Gosford Park,” a deliciously entertaining upstairs-downstairs murder mystery told from the servants’ perspective, but also a commentary on the British class system. Nominated for seven Oscars, it earned one for Fellowes’ screenplay. The star-packed production is set during a shooting weekend at an English countryside stately mansion. The year is 1932, and most of the guests are, in some way, related to the mansion’s owner, Sir William (Michael Gambon). They’re also desperately low on cash and hoping Sir William will help them out.
One guest who isn’t looking for a handout is a Hollywood producer named Morris Weissman (Balaban), there to scout locations for his new “Charlie Chan” movie. The downstairs staff is aflutter, because Weissman has brought his handsome Scottish valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe) along, and they suspect he’s a phony on both counts. As with many Altman films, the huge cast translates into various sub-plots, which are set up before the murder occurs, leading to a bunch of Christie-like red herrings. “Gosford Park” is one of Altman’s best, with its look and feel of authenticity, social comment, snide humor, and splendidly naturalistic performances. And, oh, what a marvelous cast! It includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Northam, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Eileen Atkins, Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi and Alan Bates.
Arrow Academy produced this restored Blu-ray 1080p transfer, made from the 35 mm original camera negative, and scanned in 4K (2.35:1 aspect ratio) under the supervision of cinematographer Andrew Dunn. The result is a thoroughly satisfying presentation, with gorgeous saturated colors and sharp detail, down to each wet pebble on the ground in the rainy opening scene. Skin tones are natural and a rich grain is noticeable throughout. The DTS-HD Master Audio is also top-notch, with sound effects always well-modulated, the music perfectly balanced, and dialogue crystal clear even when, as frequently happens, the camera is not on the speaker.
The special features on this disc are plentiful and include many that first appeared on the 2002 Universal DVD edition of the film. The archival extras include two commentaries, one by Altman, Stephen Altman (the director’s son and production designer), and producer David Levy; the other by Fellowes; a making-of featurette; a documentary about the film’s authenticity; a Q&A session with Altman and cast members; and 15 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Altman.
The newly added features include interviews with executive producer Jane Barclay and actress Natasha Dwightman. An enclosed booklet contains color photos; an essay by critic Sheila O’Malley; an interview with Altman by David Thompson, from his 2006 book “Altman on Altman” and some interesting production notes.
The recent commentary by Thompson and Geoff Andrew is full of fascinating trivia. They note that Fellowes (also an actor and producer) was especially well-suited to be the screenwriter, as he grew up in an atmosphere of privilege. Says Andrew, the script made “murder a hook on which to hang a study of the British class system.” Setting the story in 1932 suggested a “world that’s about to change.” Fellowes was on the set every day, and was constantly re-writing scenes. Thompson calls Altman “something of an anthropologist filmmaker, who made movies about groups of people,” who then became more important than the plot. “With the milieu of ‘Gosford Park,’ Altman was “out on a limb” as an American, and needed a lot of advisers.
All of the scenes shot below stairs, in the servants’ domain, were shot on a constructed set, designed by Stephen Altman. The upstairs scenes were filmed in and around actual English stately homes. Ryan Phillippe’s character was originally going to be played by Jude Law, who then became unavailable for the shoot. When it came to casting, Altman had a list of actors with whom he’d always wanted to work. He ended up with British cinema royalty which, at the time, literally included two Dames (Smith and Atkins) and two Knights (Gambon and Jacobi).
Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald plays one of the “tour guide” characters for the audience, along with Balaban’s and Phillippe’s, because as newcomers or outsiders to the environment, they need things explained to them. Jeremy Northam, who plays the real-life actor and composer Ivor Novello, sang and played some piano in the film, but Northam’s brother, a professional musician, provided most of the piano music. Both Thompson and Andrew were present during parts of the “Gosford Park’s” production, which makes them especially knowledgeable about Altman’s technique.
— Peggy Earle