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The Online Film Critics Society awarded Gosford Park the Best Ensemble of 2001, and with good reason. A score of characters, half with significant parts, spend a weekend together at a British manor. And although it’s sold as a murder mystery, Gosford Park is less a whodunit than a who’s-doing-what-to-whom.

Nobles and Notables

See it with a pause and rewind buttonLord and Lady McCordle (Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott-Thomas) host a shooting party at their estate. Invited are a dozen nobles and notables, plus all their valets and handmaidens. The nobles (“upstairs” in the credits) are all there because they have relations or business with Sir William, most of them counting on his money or his influence.

The class boundaries make for interesting interactions. The nobles can’t function without their servants, yet they treat them with complete disregard, which you might think is an insult, but which allows the servants a great deal of freedom. The nobles are trapped in their roles 24-7, while the servants occasionally get to be who they will.

Order in Chaos

The direction and editing are outstanding. All the two- and three-person relationships contribute to dozens of permutations. It is confusing, and yet the complexity stands up to close scrutiny. Even now I can’t believe there isn’t some flaw in the logic or the dialogue, but after two viewings I’m convinced that the cast and crew are experts at their craft.

The editing (by Ang Lee’s favorite editor Tim Squyres) is fast enough that you have to pay attention. Ten seconds here cuts to 12 seconds there, always moving from character to character. And yet not a word or a look seems extraneous. It all holds together brilliantly, and the film stays rich through several viewings. Just don’t get lost or you’ll never catch up.

Picture and Sound

I first saw Gosford Park, not in a theater, but on a screener tape. The quality of the movie overcame the quality of the VHS. But now that the movie is on DVD, the detail, color, and sound come to life.

The sound in particular benefits from Universal’s digital encoding. Though Gosford Park makes little of surround sound or subwoofer channels, it benefits greatly from the clarity of digital sound. With so many conversations taking place simultaneously, it can be hard to pick up all the nuances. The DVD makes it much easier and more relaxing to tune in.

DVD Extras

The Universal DVD is loaded with extras. A handful of deleted scenes don’t really add much to the experience. Nothing that was deleted should have stayed in the final cut.

There are two commentary tracks. One features a rambling Robert Altman, whose comments seem to get sparser and sparser as the film wears on. Altman obviously didn’t prepare for his session, and his comments are only occasionally interesting or insightful.

In contrast, the other commentary track features a bright, talkative Julian Fellowes, who speaks with a high British accent. He comes across as one who has done extensive research on the serving class, and the accent adds to the authoritativeness of his statements. He has more to say than Altman, and it is usually more interesting. He’ll get into the specifics of a line of dialogue or a detail in the plot, rather than simply commenting on the action on-screen.

Altman does have some good moments on the disc, however. A videotaped Q&A session with an early audience offers some interesting insights into the making of Gosford Park. For example, Altman always used two cameras, which were always moving. Every actor was miked for a greater flexibility in the mixing process. Altman talks about serendipity and his colleagues talk about the joys of working with “Bob.”

There are also two mini-documentaries on the making of Gosford Park, and these too are interesting and enlightening. With the Q&A session, they more than make up for a disappointing commentary track by the director.

The extra features are, on the whole, worth watching. But Gosford Park is a movie so rich with detail that maybe the best reason to see it on DVD is the ability to pause and rewind. If you’ve only seen Gosford Park once, check it out again.