Godsford Park (2001)

Synopsis: The lives of upstairs guests and downstairs servants at a party in 1932 in a country house in England as they investigate a murder involving one of them.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280707/?ref_=tttr_tr_tt

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I was intrigued by this movie when it come out…in 2001. Sixteen years is long enough to procrastinate, I think.

Leah’s Review:

We’ve already seen a few foreign films this year- and I must say, I had an easier time keeping up with what was going on in those movies (and their use of translated subtitles) than I did when I watched “Godsford Park”. To say that Robert Altman’s murder-mystery drama is fast-paced is an understatement. With multiple actors speaking simultaneously, varied European accents, and a long list of characters whose stories and names are difficult to keep straight- “Godsford Park” is not a casual watch.

I was interested to see this film because it featured so many British actors that I love. Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helen Miren…not to mention a number of actors I’ve seen in smaller parts in some of my favorite Jane Austen movie adaptations. This also meant that there were so many characters that I would need to follow throughout the movie. The film’s pacing doesn’t allow you to get to know these characters right away as it constantly switches perspectives- but rather, allows you to see bits and pieces of each character over the course of the movie. This make deciphering who the potential killer is even more difficult.

Although “Godsford Park” is marketed as a “murder-mystery”, this acts as more of a subplot. The question of “who dunnit” is less important than the stories of the individuals who are staying at Godsford Park. Instead of beginning with the murder and subsequently finding out more about the characters’ motives, we get to know them beforehand to get an understanding of why any could be the killer. The entertainment of the movie really comes from getting to know the characters and how each of them functions in their society rather than figuring out who the murderer is.

A noteworthy piece of trivia is that “Godsford Park” was written by Julian Fellowes who also wrote the now famous tv-drama “Downton Abbey”. In fact, the show was inspired by the film and was originally intended to be a spin-off. I’ve only seen one episode of “Downton Abbey” (shameful- yes, I know), but the style of both productions are very similar. Particularly in the way they explore the complexities of British culture (specifically the class system). This is another aspect that made the film a little “foreign” for me. Although I’ve read my fair share of Jane Austen and have a pretty good sense of how the British class system works, “Godsford Park” presents it as something the viewer should already be well-knowledgeable of. Some of this is pretty basic (servants have a lower status than non-servants, e.g.), but some of the inner workings of the system are more difficult to understand if you are not familiar with it already. It’s an important part of the story. So much of the characters’ motives are based on rank and what is/what is not “acceptable” in their society.

So did I like “Godsford Park”? I don’t know. I think so- but another viewing will certainly be necessary.

Brent’s Review:

I have been looking forward to seeing a Robert Altman film for quite some time, especially given his influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Expectations were high, to say the least.

With this in mind, how shall I describe my experience watching “Gosford Park”? Upon first viewing, “Gosford Park” is delightful fun in the sort of way a roller coaster is fun after the first couple drops, or a paintball game is fun after the first couple times you get hit and your pain threshold adjusts. There are so many characters in this film — all named, all with their own subplots — that the first act feels like falling off a high dive. Altman does a good job filling the pool with water, but the free fall is disorienting.

The film is a layered murder mystery that examines two distinct worlds co-existing in a mansion: the aristocratic party guests and the house servants. Each world is ruled by its own code, the do’s and don’ts masterfully illustrated through pivotal plot points. This world is dissected in a variety of ways by so many characters that the exploration of these small-scale societies feels organic. In some cases, it feels less like watching a film than watching life really happen in front of you.

This brings me to one creative choice I took issue with: cross-talking. In the first act, many of the characters interact with one another for the first time (or at least the first-in-a-long-time), but all of these meetings happen simultaneously and often in the same room. Does a director sacrifice realism to quiet the roar in the background to focus on exposition or does he favor realism? Altman chose realism; characters talk over, under, and through one another in such a way that it feels like we are just a party-goer people-watching for a weekend.

It’s excellent at immersion, but this is a murder mystery after all! The film shifts gears and favors more interpersonal engagements — it gets quieter, more introspective. At the end of the night, the master of the house is murdered. But by whom — and how, exactly — is revealed through a great deal of misdirection. Altman never cheats, but he is happy to mislead and arouse false suspicions for an hour.

The motivations all come out in the wash, but by the film’s end I didn’t feel satisfied. On one level, I didn’t really buy the motivations for some of the characters. On another level, they’re totally believable. As my wife helpfully pointed out after the film ended, “why” isn’t as important as “who.” True. I guess I fell victim to the film’s marketing. I expected Cluedo when I got high drama — shame on me, probably. I hope a second viewing bears better fruit.

Up next: We’ll be checking out our first biopic of the year with 2016’s “Jackie” starring Natalie Portman as the nation’s 35th First Lady. Portman was nominated for Best Actress with this performance.

Peace out, kids.


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