Altman’s Agatha Christie

Altman’s Agatha Christie June 11, 2024

Altman in the (digital) flesh
Source: Wikimedia

Robert Altman loves an ensemble cast. He does not, however, typically set his films at lavish aristocratic estates in the English countryside. Certainly, Altman didn’t earn his stripes making whodunits. And yet, Gosford Park (2001) is all these things. More than anything, it’s a phenomenal watch, a testament to what made Altman so special.

What makes me love Altman is his willingness to let his actors and films be. His characters scurry in and out of rooms, overhear conversations, get halfway through a statement and become silent—his films always feel inhabited, teeming. In Gosford Park, I felt this most acutely in his movement between the house proper where various important people—notables even—gather to feast, stew, and gossip. Below, the servants live, work, and eat, arranged in their own hierarchy according to the importance of their employers. Filled with constant ruckus, the downstairs feels alive; its sterile cousin upstairs left suffocating, if occasionally bursting out in song or screeching.

But conflict reigns in both parts of the house. Altman shows us just how unhappy, how troubled the atmosphere is. At the heart of the story (and I will not ruin it here) lies the rot brought about by power, by the unjust authority wielded by those upstairs, the sins and acts of violence it not only allows but subtly encourages.

I have been very vague in this review. Typically, I don’t mind “ruining” the plots of films in these miniature reviews, especially old ones. But Gosford Park remains a mystery; it deserves to be seen in a spirit of discovery, out of a desire to know what will happen and who did it—even if that’s not really the point (Altman, of course, is a master of transmuting genre into something more than itself). Go watch it; see Altman in all his glory.

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