Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.
An impressive list of potential U.S. blockbusters has been announced for the 45th London Film Festival, scheduled for Nov. 7-22.
They include Disney/Pixar's Monsters Inc., Novocaine, starring Steve Martin, and the John Woo-directed
Windtalkers, starring Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater. The festival's opener will be Robert Altman's Gosford Park, the first film the director has ever shot in Britain, whose cast includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Phillippe, Alan Bates and Stephen Fry. Among other offerings, the festival will feature gala screenings of the British film Last Orders with Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings and Ray Winstone; and Jean Luc-Godard's Eloge de l'amour.
Billed as "a (mostly) true story," "Cradle Will Rock" is an interesting and vibrant look at American theater and art worlds facing adversity in 1930s New York played out as a cautionary tale against artistic censorship.
With an imaginative and informative original screenplay that seamlessly harmonizes true-life events and characters with fictionalized ones and acted with a labor-of-love energy by a cast of over a dozen well-respected actors from both film and stage, Tim Robbins' third directorial and writing effort employs a style that can be described as being both Altmanesque in scope and Sturgeslike in pacing and tone.
Although taking all this in can be a little too frantic and overpowering at times, "Cradle Will Rock" authentically re-creates the look and feel of the period admirably. With a highly charged theatricality that incorporates music and wit, viewing the film almost seems like experiencing live Broadway musical theater (that fact, combined with the subject matter at hand, should make the film a rare delight for theater aficionados yet a bit daunting for some mainstream moviegoers).
At the heart of the story is a production led by a young Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen, a bit out of control). The production is a controversial musical piece about unionism by a little-known composer named Marc Blitzstein (an intense Hank Azaria). Under the auspices of the government's Works Progress Administration, Welles and his partner, John Houseman (captured with an amusing pretentiousness by Cary Elwes), lead a unit under the Federal Theatre Project (a Depression-era relief agency) headed by purposeful Hallie Flanagan (Tony winner Cherry Jones). Headed for trouble because of its supposedly inflammatory content, the play is eventually shut down by the federal government right before the first performance.
Also dealing with the concept of censorship is renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera (spiritedly played by Ruben Blades), whose freedom of expression is denied after being commissioned by a controlling 24-year-old Nelson Rockefeller (a capable John Cusack) to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center.
Other figures of both the elite class, and struggling ones, are effectively played by diverse actors such as Joan Cusack, John Turturro, Emily Watson, Susan Sarandon, Jack Black, Paul Giamatti, John Carpenter and Bob Balaban.
Especially noteworthy are featured side stories involving Bill Murray as an alcoholic has-been ventriloquist and a breezy Kay Thompsonish performance by a delightful Vanessa Redgrave as the bohemian-spirited socialite wife of a fictional industrialist portrayed by the prolific Philip Baker Hall.
The coming together of all these tales is the climax of the piece, where the troupe of the ill-fated "The Cradle Will Rock" rally behind Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein to persevere in a show-must-go-on fashion (reminiscent of a popular theme in many musicals of the same time period). Extremely well-staged, this rousing finale captures an exciting yet fairly obscure moment in American musical-theater history and revels in it as a symbol of free expression triumphing over small-minded artistic oppression.
Outstanding technical expertise includes the work of esteemed French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, frequent Altman editor Geraldine Peroni and Robbins' regular production designer, 1999 Tony Award winner Richard Hoover. Production is greatly served by the detailed work of costume designer Ruth Meyers (whose period work in 'L.A. Confidential' also left an impressive mark) and the team of hair and makeup artists headed, respectively, by Kathe Swanson and Linda Grimes.
* MPAA rating: R, for some language and sexuality.
"Cradle Will Rock"
Hank Azaria: Marc Blitzstein Angus MacFadyen: Orson Welles John Cusack: Nelson Rockefeller Cary Elwes: John Houseman Susan Sarandon: Margherita Sarfatti Emily Watson: Olive Stanton Joan Cusack: Hazel Huffman John Turturro: Aldo Silvano
A Buena Vista presentation. Director Tim Robbins. Screenplay Tim Robbins. Producers Tim Robbins, Jon Kilik and Lydia Dean Pilcher. Director of photography Jean Yves Escoffier. Editor Geraldine Peroni. Music David Robbins. Production designer Richard Hoover. Costume designer Ruth Myers. Art directors Troy Sizemore and Peter Rogers. Set decorator Deborah Schutt. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.