Is it really a surprise to anyone that the British have been screwing their servants both figuratively and literally for as many years as they've had servants? There's an old saying amongst the aristocracy in Britain: "Spread your servants. Good cheer!"
Apparently, the long history of aristocratic foibles is a news flash for Robert Altman, because he seems to think it's original to show these people confounded by moral turpitude of their own making. And if it weren't bad enough to spend screen time on just a few of these annoying people, Altman, true to form, fills his movie with so many tangential characters that NORAD couldn't track them all. By the time I got everyone's names straight, the movie was over.
The central patriarch is Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon). He has the money, so even though everyone hates him, they have to humor him. Amongst those humoring him are Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), his wife (Lady Sylvia McCordle), Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), and Ivor's American friend, Morris (Bob Balaban). There are about ten others, but they're all actors who are skilled at little more than sucking up to Altman for one of his bit-part table scraps, so listing them here would be a waste of time. Altman shows the flip side of aristocratic society via the servants, who include (deep breath): Jennings (Alan Bates), George (Richard E. Grant), Probert (Derek Jacobi), Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), Elsie (Emily Watson), Mary (Kelly MacDonald) and Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe).
I don't know how much more of this plot I'm supposed to explain, but with that many characters crammed onto the screen, you can imagine how long it takes Altman to get it all straight. My high school graduation ceremony had better plot development. Eventually, somebody gets murdered and apparently we're supposed to be interested in who did it, rather than relieved that there's one less character to follow.
The only thing this movie made we want to know was why the servants of Britain didn't revolt a long time ago and slice the throat of every aristocrat within sniffing distance. Thank God we realized the threat here in America, because we've confined all those servant types to the fast food industry. Ever try to slice somebody's throat with a plastic spoon? Large order of a fries and two Quarter Pounders to go, loser, and make it snappy!
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