I find myself in the minority in my opinion of last year's Best Picture nominee "Gosford Park". While I've warmed up to the picture in the viewings since my original one a couple of weeks before the film's release, I still have reservations about the film. The movie stars a legion of British (and some American) actors (Charles Dance, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson and Kristin Scott Thomas). Guests are gathering at the house of Sir William McCordle for a weekend of hunting and chat. Upstairs, the guests are gathering and settling in, while downstairs, the servants are hard at work.
The setting is an enormous English mansion which has been lavishly dressed for the picture. McCordle (Michael Gambon) and wife Lady Sylvia (Kirstin Scott Thomas) are heading the affair, while guests include Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban). Downstairs participants include: Weissman's "valet" (Ryan Phillipe), the maid (Kelly MacDonald) of the Countess (Maggie Smith) and head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson), among others.
The film's first 90 minutes simply has the film following various conversations between the guests in the house. While the performances from a top-notch cast are quite good, there's little focus or development of each of what seems like around 25 speaking parts. While there are sharp exchanges of dialogue and impressive period details to appreciate, "Gosford Park" attempts to sustain itself on characters alone and not enough of them are well-developed enough to gain an interest in; it needs a few more elements: a little more drama, a little more intensity, a little more sharp humor. As is, several minutes of the opening 90 could have been deleted to assist the pace, which starts to lose forward momentum at points.
Eventually, "Gosford Park" turns into a murder mystery once the characters have all been introduced. Even so, the characters seemingly go on about their business afterwards while a bumbling investigator attempts to wrap-up the case. The performances in the film are mixed, with Emily Watson being my favorite of the enormous cast. As with the rest of the cast, she doesn't have much to work with, but she gives the role enough energy and depth to get interest. Maggie Smith is also wonderful, while Helen Mirren and Kelly MacDonald are also very good. I found little interest in most of the rest of the characters, some of which (Bob Balaban's producer character) might have been improved had they been given more focus.
The film functions respectably as an examination of British society at the time, but I found screenwriter Julian Fellowes' DVD commentary discussion of the same topic far more interesting and informative. I can appreciate some of the film's performances, the production design, cinematography and a few other aspects of the film, but I'm still a little surprised that the film gained a Best Picture nomination. Upon another viewing, I find the film a bit more involving, but I still think it suffers from some noticably slow moments early in the film and not enough focus on the main characters to hold interest.
VIDEO: "Gosford Park" is presented by Universal in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Andrew Dunn's cinematography can appear somewhat drab at times, but this transfer accurately shows what I viewed in the theater late last year. Sharpness and detail are very good, although not great. This is not a sleek picture in appearance and the slightly soft, smooth and crisp image still is very pleasant.
Problems were really quite minimal. Some minor and intentional grain is visible on a fairly frequent basis, but this was hardly a concern. A couple of instances of slight edge enhancement were also noticable, but not very bothersome. No pixelation was seen and print flaws were minimal, as only a few little specks were seen.
The film's natural color palette was nicely rendered here, never appearing smeared. Black level was solid, while flesh tones looked accurate. A solid effort.
SOUND: "Gosford Park" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's audio is a few steps beyond what one might expect from a largely dialogue-driven feature. Although many scenes are dialogue and score-driven, an enjoyable amount of ambient sounds enter in during several scenes. Surrounds provide some light ambience and score, but aren't used agressively. Dialogue remains clear and crisp throughout, although the accents may be a bit difficult to understand for some.
MENUS: Nicely animated main menu with clips in the background. Animated transitions to sub-menus are also included.
Commentary: This is a commentary from screenwriter Julian Fellowes. I must say, I'd be very surprised if there is another commentary this year that is as informative, interesting and enjoyable as this one. I still do not consider myself a fan of this picture, but I did gain a new appreciation for the amount of period detail that went into this picture that I was not previously aware of. For the nearly 150 minute running time, Fellowes offers a complete discussion of the British society and class system of the time. While some may not warm to the idea of commentary as history lesson, Fellowes offers this material in an enjoyable manner and offers additional stories from his own life. Little in the way of technical details are found here, but Fellowes discusses the period in a manner that's fun and very informative. A superb commentary and a very worthwhile listen.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Robert Altman and production designer Stephen Altman. This track, on the other hand, is a more subdued and general discussion of the story, along with some production details. While this certainly isn't a bad commentary, I really didn't think it was as interesting as the screenwriter's commentary. This one seems rather slow, where I felt the nearly 2 1/2 hour screenwriter's discussion went by very quickly.
Making Of: This is, surprisingly, a very good "making of" documentary and not the usual "promotional" fluff that simply tells us about the story of which we've just watched. Interviews with Altman and many of the actors discuss character, the history of the period and what it was like to work with one another. In-between are some moderately enjoyable behind-the-scenes clips of the cast at work. Overall, I got a nice sense of how the filming went and how Altman works. The documentary runs just short of 20 minutes.
Question and Answer Session: This is a 24-minute piece that has director Altman, screenwriter Fellowes, producer David Levy and actors Bob Balaban, Jeremy Northam, Helen Mirren, Ryan Phillipe and Kelly MacDonald. The actors and filmmakers discuss the movie (this took place after a screening on March 8th at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation) and then answer questions from the audience members.
Deleted Scenes: This section offers 20 minutes of deleted footage with optional commentary. Some mildly interesting moments are contained within, but most of this seemed like minor conversations that were unnecessary.
Authenticity Of "Gosford Park": This is an excellent 8-minute featurette that offers interviews with director Altman, screenwriter Fellowes and the film's several consultants who were former servants.
Also: Trailer for "Gosford Park", cast/crew bios, soundtrack promo and a promo reel for other Universal titles.
Final Thoughts: "Gosford Park" still isn't my cup of tea, but I liked it a bit more the second time. Interestingly enough, I found the commentary by screenwriter Julian Fellowes more interesting and entertaining than the movie. The DVD is clearly a winner and something that fans of the film will certainly enjoy, offering a very good presentation of the film and extras that cover every aspect of the film. The screenwriter's commentary by Fellowes is especially fantastic. Certainly recommended for fans of the film or the genre; others who haven't seen it may want to try a rental first.