“What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? Its the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant; I’m better than good, I’m the best; I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.” – Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren)
Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Gosford Park.
Following the upstairs-downstairs format, the film follows a large ensemble of aristocratic guests and their servants who find themselves at a wealthy but hated man’s home for a weekend of socialization and sport in 1932. In the parlor there’s the host (Michael Gambon), his young wife Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a series of guests all vying for the rich patriarch’s money. American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) hopes to use the weekend as inspiration for his next picture, which traditionalist Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) refuses to condone. In the servants quarters, Constance’s maid (Kelly MacDonald) fends off fresh Henry Denton (Ryan Philippe) while falling slowly for Robert Parker (Clive Owen) — a man intent on finding his mother despite being hustled around by the head of the servants, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren). Everything changes, however, when a murder occurs and no one is clear of suspicion.
The Julian Fellows period mystery is more of a dark comedy than serious period drama — at least, at the beginning that’s how the movie paints itself. Instead of showing this as the way life is, it’s a sardonic look at the way English life was (while Fellows’ current project is more of a glorification-slash-examination of the Victorian era slipping into the modern age). Henry Denton is the change agent that gives the audience a way to connect with what’s going on through his own confusion, as seen through how he’s unaware of how the servants are called the names of their employers. There’s a deeper reason to this, of course, but for the moment he’s the most connectable because he’s like the audience — new to the social dynamic.
Meanwhile, other characters like Robert Parker and Mrs. Wilson have darker motives than just serving their bosses, and the characters upstairs are involved in a silent feud over a still-alive man’s money. Even when the murder happens, the whodunit takes a backseat to the depth of the other characters’ situations and actions. Who cares who committed murder when Lady Trentham is so obsessed with the gossip surrounding the other guests despite hating being in the house? And is why is Weissman really there? Apart from the reason it gives for Stephen Fry to show up as a mind-addled inspector, there’s really not much of a reason for a murder — maybe that’s why it doesn’t happen until later in the film.
Gosford Park presents a great mystery that doesn’t have anything to do with the murder that happens over the weekend. Although its main plot draw is seemingly superfluous, the entire film is fascinating for its artistry and ensemble. It’s like a finite episode of Downton Abbey, but with a wicked sense of humor about its time period rather than a reverence toward antiquity.