Movie review: Gosford Park (2001)

The butler did not do it.

Gosford Park is a slow-moving whodunit set on an English estate in 1932. Various family members and acquaintances have gathered to enjoy a pheasant hunt. Two-thirds of the way through the movie, the host ends up dead.

The class and servant structure is from another world. Servants mill about doing their jobs, unseen but hearing and seeing everything. The movie shows both worlds: the forward-facing lives of the upper class and the back-facing lives of the servants.

In the end, we are brought into the secret of whodunit. The person who thought he did it never finds out for sure that it wasn’t his knife that killed Sir William; what actually killed Sir Williams was poison administered to him moments before the stabbing.

The upper crust, including those among them who are down-on-their-luck, are a mean-spirited bunch. It is hard to feel sympathy for any of them. We hear multiple ways of how the victim deserves no pity.

A bit of humor flows through Gosford Park. Bob Balaban, who has played the straight man in several Christopher Guest films, is an American movie producer from California. Of course, the American has to be a bit odd. He scandalizes the servants by being a vegetarian who eats fish. Why on earth is he attending a hunt if he is a vegetarian, they ask?

The servant he brings—and insists accompanies them on the hunt in contradiction to British custom—turns out to be an American actor and his lover. The servants suspected something odd about the servant all along. His accent isn’t Scottish as he claims to be. And of course, he knows nothing about actually being a servant.

During the scene when William’s body is discovered, the American, Mr. Weissman, is engrossed in a long-distance phone conversation about an upcoming film he is fighting to make: a Charlie Chan film set in London about a murder during a hunting party at an estate. Sound familiar? As mayhem swirls around him, unaware he continues to discuss the plot of the film. Oh, the butler couldn’t have done it. That is too obvious.

Balaban isn’t the only spot of humor. Stephen Fry plays a bumbling inspector with a smart but pooh-poohed constable as a sidekick. The constable slowly realizes a few things about the crime scene, but the absent-minded inspector downplays his comments. The constable finds a broken coffee cup by the murder spot but is told by the inspector that a servant can clean that up. As a servant passes through a hidden passageway behind a bookcase in front of the inspector and constable, the constable tries to bring it to the inspector’s attention only to be told not now.

Gosford Park includes some well-known and well-respected actors. Several twists and turns are spelled out to the audience, which is just as well. I was having trouble keeping the characters straight, let alone working through their motivations for having William dead.


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