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DVD Review: Gosford Park

By Glenn Abel

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park art The master collaborator Robert Altman probably doesn't mind, but Julian Fellowes has done it again. The first-time film screenwriter, who walked away with "Gosford Park's" only Oscar in March, deftly steals the show in the DVD version of the film.

Fellowes is deeply knowledgeable about the English upper class' old traditions and serves as an entertaining guide into their curious world as it was in the 1930s -- the era depicted in "Gosford." Hardly pausing for a breath or needing to collect his thoughts, the British writer-actor delivers one of the best DVD commentaries to date.

"Failure and lack of money is the great crime," he says of a few of the film's upper-class ("upstairs") characters -- and then goes on to explain how the English probate system usually left younger siblings without money to maintain their pampered lifestyles upon the deaths of their parents.

As for the servants' "downstairs" power structure: "The butler was like a king with two prime ministers -- the housekeeper and the cook," he notes, giving context to one of the film's major plot conflicts. The professional hierarchy in the servants' quarters was every bit as rigid as the social one upstairs, he says.

Altman, who appears on a separate commentary track, has his moments as well. The secret to his success? Altman gathers a great cast and then waits for them to make on-camera mistakes, thus hitting "that truth button." He seeks "a piece of performance that they don't even know they're doing."

Universal has released "Gosford Park" in a collectors' edition (retail $26.98). The DVD comes in widescreen only, helping viewers track the comings and goings of Altman's 40 or so players. The picture looks OK, a bit soft and dark in places. The aspect ratio is about 2.35:1 with the 16x9 monitor enhancement. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound adds unexpected life to the proceedings, delivering great atmospherics. As with any Altman movie, conversations overlap willy-nilly, with lines coming from any direction, as they would in real life.

Altman, who had wanted to do his first murder mystery, teamed with actor-producer Bob Balaban ("Waiting for Guffman") to imagine "Gosford" after they couldn't find a suitable Agatha Christie tale. It tells of a large group of upper-class guests and their servants in a "great house" of the early 1930s. Secrets and lies run rampant upstairs and downstairs. Halfway through the film, the house's owner is killed, inspiring half-hearted attempts to unmask the murderer. Fellowes says it's "a film pretending to be a whodunit." Altman says it's a "it-was-done."

Altman's cast was almost entirely British. First hired was the great Maggie Smith -- the cranky center of the film -- followed by top English talent such as Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Alan Bates and Kristen Scott Thomas. Lesser names from the British stage hold their own with the stars. A trio of American actors are thrown in, including Balaban, who plays the put-upon producer of a "Charlie Chan" flick. Of the cast, Altman says proudly, "I could not find their weakest link." The Screen Actors Guild agreed, giving the ensemble a collective award.

Filming for the upstairs scenes commenced on location in a "great house" 45 minutes outside of London. The downstairs scenes were shot at a different time, on "the best set I've ever worked on," Altman says. The detail extended to the proper type of old non-reflective glass used for hallway windows. As in real life, there would be little or no contact between some of the upstairs and downstairs actors.

Actress Scott Thomas, who feared "survival of the loudest" in the big cast, reports that there wasn't "any kind of camera hogging." Mirren says Altman's style and his preparation made everyone comfortable: "(You feel) that the whole scene around you is full of detail and interest. You're not working it alone out there."

Detail was indeed a top priority. Altman brought in as advisers a butler, a cook and a housemaid who were working in the 1930s. A DVD featurette on the film's authenticity shows the old pros checking monitors during the shoot and guiding actors in the proper old ways. Bates, for one, held on to his butler mentor "like a life raft." Great debates arose over table settings and protocol (styles differed somewhat from house to house).

Fellowes illuminates his talk with references to his own upper-class family -- Smith's character was based on his great-aunt -- and their eccentricities. Of the blase reaction in the "Gosford" house to murder, he observes: "The strongest instinct of these people is to re-normalize, to keep the whole show on the road." Of the (quite common) sexual play between servants and masters, he says, "To have a sexual relationship with someone outside your class ... is a way of having some physical fulfillment without disturbing things." Sex between servants, however, was a cardinal sin that cost the lovers their homes and livelihood.

Altman, amiable and alert, speaks in the tones of an expert witness at a malpractice trial. He's nudged along by his son, production designer Stephen Altman, and producer David Levy (both unidentified until the commentary is over). In a 20-minute section of deleted footage, Altman confidently gives the merits of each scene and then dismisses them (even Smith feels his ax). None of the cuts are mourned. "That was a self-serving scene," he says of one clip.

Altman says he used two cameras that were always in motion, however slight. Servants were present as observers in all upstairs scenes, which had to end abruptly if they left the room. His direction to Mirren was, "You're Mrs. Danvers (from 'Rebecca') haunting the household." Of the hazy indoor atmosphere, he dryly notes, "There was a lot of cigarette smoke in 1932."

Altman and Fellowes both emphasize that the film can be best appreciated with multiple viewings in which one eventually can catch all of the clues and drive-by subplots. Only the audience has enough information to solve the mystery, not the characters. "You have to put things together on your own," Altman says.

The DVD also includes a decent 20-minute "making of" featurette and a Q&A session shot live at the TV academy with Altman, Fellowes, Mirren, Levy and others. Selected hard-to-read filmographies cover only work done in the past few decades. Universal has once again placed in the mix ads for "coming attractions" -- old videos such as "Apollo 13" and "Patch Adams." There are English and Spanish subtitle options as well as a theatrical trailer.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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