Full of surprises, this Gosford Park - both the film and the house! I'd been dragged to the film, kicking and screaming as I guessed it would be a cross between Upstairs, Downstairs and a Miss Marples mystery. In fact, this expectation wasn't entirely misleading. The first half of the film has no narrative impetus and consists mainly of the opportunity to gawp at the self-indulgent eccentricities of upper class behaviour in what looks like the Edwardian era but is actually the 1930's. It is all wonderfully researched and re-created, in the manner of an old-style BBC classic serial. The interest lies mainly 'downstairs' as the nuances of the social hierarchy of the servant class are vividly brought to life as the butler and the housekeeper exercise their authority over their fellows below the stairs. Then, about halfway through, the film suddenly turns into Cluedo mode with the violent murder of mine host, poisoned in the library (and then stabbed for good measure). Whodunnit?
So far, so predictable. The main, and very distracting, interest up to this point was, for me, playing 'spot the celebrity'. Is the butler really Alan Bates in disguise - and the housekeeper Helen Mirren, and the gentleman's gentle Derek Jacobi? Haven't they all come down in the world? My two female companions (lucky me!), on the other hand, seemed to be captivated by the intricacies of country house living - the changes of dress, the table settings, the servants' underwear. But then something unexpected happened. This turns out not to be Cluedo after all. The attempt to solve the murder by the bumbling Inspector (Stephen Fry playing Stephen Fry) turns out to be irrelevant to the main purpose of the film. What instead we are confronted with is a touching human drama, a story of exploitation and betrayal, of loss and discovery, the truth of which is perceived not by the detective (' this murder couldn't have been carried out by a servant') but by the na´ve and vulnerable ladies' maid. ( Little Mo from 'Eastenders'?). All the apparently irrelevant detail and the inconsequential dialogue of the first half suddenly becomes frighteningly significant as the motivation for the murder reveals itself to us through her eyes.
This is, in fact, a clever, subtle film which would have been even better without the constant distraction of the celebrity cameos. I particularly liked the framing device of introducing into the guest list of the house party a Hollywood director who is conducting research into the English class system for his next film, a Charlie Chan crime mystery, set in an English country house. His detached and ironic observation of the upper classes at play offers the audience their own modern commentary on the events and behaviour they are witnessing. So hurry up and see Gosford Park (2002). The house can be seen at Sion House, one of the homes of the Duke of Northumberland.