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review added: 6/7/02

Gosford Park
2001 (2002) - USA Films (Universal)

review by Dan Kelly and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Gosford Park

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/A-

Specs and Features

138 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ???), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (with director Robert Altman, production designer Stephen Altman and producer David Levy), audio commentary (with screenwriter Jullian Fellowes), The Making of Gosford Park featurette (20 mins), The Authenticity of Gosford Park featurette (8 mins), Filmmaker Q&A featurette (25 mins), 19 deleted scenes with optional director's commentary, theatrical trailer, 5 promo trailers (for Universal DVD, Apollo 13, K-Pax, Patch Adams and The Family Guy), cast & crew bios, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English for the hearing impaired and Spanish

Not unlike many of Robert Altman's other great films, Gosford Park is a film that necessitates multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. My immediate impression after first seeing it was that I found it simply to be a good movie. I appreciated its sly sense of humor and the breadth of emotions a large ensemble cast was able to embody under Altman's direction. Upon second viewing, I found greater meaning in it. The benefit of seeing it a second time is that you have further insight into character motive and intent. On its surface, it's a whodunit (an exceptional one at that), but it's more than that. Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes, an Oscar winner for his script, use the whodunit formula as a means of dissecting human behavior and intimate relationships. It's a studied examination of pretentiousness, sympathy, trust and loyalty under the microcosm of the very well-off and those they employ in service.

It's November 1932, and a group of the social elite have gathered at the grand English countryside home of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) for a shooting party. Within a few minutes of stepping inside the estate, we're introduced to most of the invited guests and the various house help. Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), an impish American film producer, arrives with his valet Henry (Ryan Phillippe) and Ivor (Jeremy Northam), a popular cinema star and cousin to Sir William. Lady Sylvia's Aunt Constance, the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) is viciously snobbish, but has no reservations about divulging even the most private matters to Mary (Kelly MacDonald), her personal maid. The Countess is constantly in danger of being cut off from the generous stipend she receives from Sir William and discusses it openly with Mary and her nieces, Lady Lavinia Meredith (Natasha Wightman) and Lady Louisa Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville).

Helen Mirren is a standout as Mrs. Wilson, the dedicated housekeeper who is at odds with the cook, Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). They acknowledge one another just long enough to do what is absolutely necessary, but it's clear that they know things about each other that neither would like to be divulged. As the weekend progresses, and the houseguests make private revelations to each other, Altman and his trademark brand of overlaid dialogue and documentary style camera work let us in on these hushed conversations. The camera approaches these exchanges from behind houseplants, around corners and outside closed doors with a sense of exclusivity that keeps you informed of every small detail in the lives of the visitors to Gosford Park. The murder doesn't even occur until well into the second half of the film, but the buildup to it is essential to the overall impact of the film.

The first half of Gosford Park is slow to build and features a great deal of character exposition. I've talked to some that felt this part weighed down the film and others who felt it added needed character depth. I'm in the latter camp. I like that about Altman's films, because the additional character development makes repeated viewing more gratifying. It's also beneficial in the final act of his films, where a tragedy inevitably befalls one of the characters. The tragedy in Gosford Park isn't the murder, but the lifetime of secrets that culminate in that event. Its concluding scene finds a character curled up in bed, sobbing after all that can be revealed has been laid out in the open. It's a moving scene and one that speaks of the strength of the rest of the movie.

Universal's DVD version of Gosford Park manages to be quite a nice collector's edition. The video is anamorphic widescreen, but is quite a bit less than Universal's usual quality. However, this is entirely due to the production quality of the film itself. Shot on high-grain stocks, this film is quite soft looking and exhibits extensive grain throughout the image. Colors are good and accurate, but the blacks are muddy and lack detail. There's also light and occasional digital artifacting as the compression struggles to deal with the grain and lack of detail in the print. These issues are nothing you wouldn't expect if you'd seen this film in the theater - the DVD does represent the theatrical experience accurately. But they do prevent the disc from looking as good as most others these days.

On the audio side of things, the DVD fares somewhat better. As a dialogue-driven film, this Dolby Digital 5.1 mix isn't going to thrill audiophiles. But the dialogue itself is presented front and center and is always natural sounding, although intelligibility suffers a little from the fact that little in the way of ADR was done in post production. The rear channels are used mostly for ambiance and the film's soundtrack, although there is the occasional well-placed directional effect. Again, the theatrical experience is accurately served.

The special edition materials on this disc are actually quite impressive, save for the usual Universal self-promotional trailers (which we won't waste time on by mentioning again here). There's an audio commentary track with director Robert Altman, along with production designer Stephen Altman and producer David Levy. It's a very sedate track, with occasional long pauses, but you get a number of insights into the production design, casting and the effort to maintain accuracy. A second track features screenwriter Jullian Fellowes, and is the better of the two, as he focuses a great deal on the characters, motivations and overall plot. You also get a 20-minute featurette on the making of the film (The Making of Gosford Park), along with an 8-minute look at the production's accuracy (The Authenticity of Gosford Park). Interestingly, there's a 25-minute videotape of a Q&A session with the director and other filmmakers, which was shot in March of this year after a screening of the film at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A word of note, however - this piece contains major spoilers. You'll want to view this AFTER you've seen the film itself. The last of the major extras is a reel of some 19 deleted scenes (in letterboxed widescreen only) with optional director's commentary. They're definitely worth a look, but quality is somewhat less than optimal. Other than that, you get a theatrical trailer, the usual cast & crew bios and a promo for the film's soundtrack CD.

Gosford Park was clearly one of the best films of 2000, and it's well worth a viewing on DVD. The video quality isn't state-of-the-art, but this disc does adequately represent the theatrical experience of the film. And the extras on this disc should definitely satisfy fans. Recommended.

Dan Kelly

Bill Hunt

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