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When viewing a typical whodunit, one just has to ask the obvious question: Did the butler do it? Well, in Gosford Park there are about eight butlers, a dozen maidservants, drivers, gardeners, liverymen, and valets of all kinds. Thus, the standard murder mystery setup is already thrown for a loop. While the servants gossip and scheme downstairs, the nobles upstairs also plot and connive. The upstairs roster of personalities consists of about twenty men and women, each with some reason to machinate against the curmudgeonly Sir William. It's an ego-fest to rival any office politics or family drama you may have experienced. And all with British accents!
The epicenter in this hurricane of properness and thinly veiled anger is Mary (Maggie Smith), servant to one noblewoman, we'll call her Lady Snobfield, because I don't feel like going back to decode who was who. From Mary's point of view, the entire story unfolds. We are introduced to the setting with its stark class contrasts. We see the crime committed and we watch the solution unfold.
As a weird counterpoint, Bob Balaban appears, playing the Hollywood director of the Charlie Chan films. He sits with the nobility at the dinner table and tells them he's working on a script about a whodunit in an old mansion, much like the situation afoot exactly where he is. But the coincidence goes no farther: the director character is relegated, for much of the movie, to the role of man on a long-distance phone call. Much of what happens is completely lost to him, and he's no help in solving the mystery.
This is just one of the false leads that promises to be interesting, but is quickly thrown away. One servant had been a deserter during the war. We find this out and we leave the topic all in one scene. Another servant, we are to understand, is gay. But nothing ever becomes of his homosexuality except that he is the butt of a snide remark from another servant. Not even two snide remarks. Not even a hint of an unrequited crush on the deceased. Just: "this guy's gay." The end. It's tricky to include so many completely unimportant details. It makes the mystery so cloudy!
Meanwhile, upstairs, we have Countess Uppercrust, the younger wife of Sir William. She has three two five daughters or daughters in law--or maybe they're sisters--in various states of marriage and disrepair. One seems to be depressed, pregnant, psychotic and/or epileptic. Another has a beau who is seeking funding for Sudanese soldiers. There's one man, perhaps a son to the Countess, who has taken a non-noble wife and is ashamed of her. He is trying to have an affair with some other upper-class chick, Duchess Snootypants, but it's all so proper that you can hardly tell that anything is going on.
What I'm getting at here is too many characters and too much subtlety. Too many storylines with too much intrigue. There's hardly any hope of keeping track of it, but that is perhaps what makes the mystery materialize: In this labyrinth of personality, a very basic crime is committed for very basic reasons, and all the rest is just padding to fog the true murderer.
Like a Penn and Teller magic trick, the tale ends as part of the narrative. There's no sudden revelation, no moment when the detective makes an accusation as in the game of Clue. Instead, the answer to the mystery unfolds just as the mystery unfolded. In fact, only three characters--including the guilty--ever find out who committed the crime. The viewer is allowed the answer as part of the whole tale, which is somewhat unnerving for those of us used to moments of drama in mysteries like this.
Some might consider the portrait of the times to be worth the viewing. Others might like the population density of characters at the cost of characterization. Still others might be willing to believe the rumors that you have to watch it twice to get it--without actually trying to watch it again themselves.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.