Directed by: Robert Altman
Screenplay by: Julian Fellowes
Tagline: “Tea At Four. Dinner At Eight. Murder At Midnight.”
Gosford Park is a 2001 British mystery film directed by Robert Altman and written by Julian Fellowes. The film has an ensemble cast, which includes Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Emily Watson. The story depicts a party of wealthy Britons and an American, and their servants, who gather for a shooting weekend at Gosford Park, an English country house. A murder occurs after a dinner party, and the film goes on to present the subsequent investigation from the servants' and guests' perspectives.
Development on Gosford Park began in 1999, when Bob Balaban asked Altman if they could develop a film together. Balaban suggested an Agatha Christie-style whodunit and introduced Altman to Julian Fellowes, with whom Balaban had been working on a different project. The film went into production in March 2001, and began filming at Shepperton Studios. The film premiered in November of 2001. It received a limited release in the United States in December, before being widely released in January 2002.
Gosford Park was successful at the box office, grossing over $87 million in cinemas worldwide, making it Altman's second most successful film after MASH. Widely acclaimed by critics, it earned multiple awards and nominations, including seven Academy Award nominations and nine British Academy Film Awards nominations.
The TV series Downton Abbey — written and created by Fellowes — was originally planned as a spin-off of Gosford Park, but was developed instead as a stand-alone story inspired by the film, set decades earlier.
In November 1932, Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), and her lady's maid, Mary MacEachran (Kelly Macdonald) travel to Gosford Park for the weekend for a hunting party. On the way, they encounter actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and Weissman's valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), who are also attending. At the house, they're greeted by Lady Trentham's niece Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), her husband Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), and their daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford). The other guests include Lady Sylvia's sisters, Louisa, Lady Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville) and Lady Lavinia Meredith (Natasha Wightman) and their husbands, Raymond, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander). Also attending are the Honorable Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) and his wife, Mabel (Claudie Blakley); Isobel's suitor, Lord Rupert Standish (Laurence Fox) and his friend Jeremy Blond (Trent Ford).
Commander Meredith is hurting financially and brings up the matter with Sir William, who reveals that he is canceling his investment in Meredith's new business venture. Sir William also reveals privately to Lady Sylvia that he may stop paying Lady Trentham's allowance. Mary and Lord Stockbridge's valet, Parks (Clive Owen), are attracted to each other and trade pleasantries. Denton asks a number of questions about life in service and Parks reveals that he has been raised in an orphanage. Denton meets Lady Sylvia and during the night, he goes to her room.
The next morning the men go out early on a pheasant shoot, and Sir William is slightly injured by a low shot. Later, the ladies join the gentlemen for an outdoor luncheon on the estate grounds, where Commander Meredith pleads with Sir William to not back out of the investment, breaking decorum by grabbing Sir William's arm and causing him to shatter his cocktail glass on the ground.
While dressing for dinner, Lady Trentham and Mary are visited by Lady Sylvia, who reveals that Sir William is in a terrible mood with all of his guests after the events of the weekend and that he may stop paying his wife's aunt her allowance. Lady Trentham is upset by this news, and tersely tells Mary to be discreet about it (ironically after encouraging her to share downstairs gossip about the other guests).
Dinner that evening is tense and sombre, with the announcement that Commander Meredith will be leaving in the morning and that he now must prepare for bankruptcy thanks in part to Sir William's withdrawal of his investment — a development to which Sir William reacts with callous indifference. As the conversation unfolds, tempers flare and Lady Sylvia attacks Sir William, implying that he was a First World War profiteer. The head housemaid, Elsie (Emily Watson), rises to his defense, breaking the class barrier, and thus revealing her affair with Sir William to all who are present. Everyone watches in shocked silence at this indiscretion, and Elsie hurries from the room—knowing that she will inevitably be dismissed.
Sir William abruptly storms off and goes to the library, where the housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) brings him coffee. He demands whisky instead. Lady Sylvia asks Mr. Novello to entertain the guests. George (Richard E. Grant, first footman), Parks, Mr. Nesbitt and Commander Meredith disappear and an unknown person goes to the library and stabs Sir William as he sits slumped in his chair, supposedly sleeping.
Minutes later, Lady Stockbridge goes to the library to entice Sir William to return to the party and her screams draw everyone to the room. Commander Meredith and Mr. Nesbitt offer no explanations for their disappearances, while George says he was fetching milk for the coffee service and Parks claims to have been fetching hot water bottles.
Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) arrive to investigate the murder. Dexter suggests that Sir William was already dead when he was stabbed. It is eventually surmised that Sir William was poisoned before the stabbing. Denton confesses to Jennings (Alan Bates), the butler, that he is not a valet but actually an American actor preparing for a film role.
The next morning, Lady Sylvia goes for her usual morning ride, which surprises Inspector Thompson. Barnes (Adrian Scarborough) overhears Commander Meredith telling Lady Lavinia that the death of Sir William's was a stroke of luck for them, as the investment is now secure. Barnes tells Inspector Thompson, who interrogates Meredith.
Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) tells the kitchen maid, Bertha (Teresa Churcher), that Sir William was known for seducing the women working in his factories. If a woman became pregnant, Sir William offered them two choices: keep the baby and lose your job, or give the baby up and keep your job. Those who gave up their babies were told that the adoptions were being arranged with good families. In reality, Sir William paid squalid orphanages to take the children. Mary goes to Parks' room and tells him that she knows he is the murderer. Parks tells her that he discovered Sir William was his father, entered service and attempted to gain employment with someone in his circle. Parks tells her that he did not poison Sir William and Mary is relieved, as Parks only stabbed the corpse.
Mary listens to Lady Sylvia and Lady Trentham discussing why Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Wilson are enemies. Lady Sylvia believes the tension between them flows from the fact that Mrs. Wilson now outranks Mrs. Croft. Lady Trentham asks if Mrs. Wilson was ever married and Lady Sylvia replies that her name was once Parks or Parker. Mary goes to Mrs. Wilson and the older woman confesses that she poisoned Sir William to protect her son, because she knew that Parks was there to kill Sir William. She also reveals that she and Mrs. Croft are sisters. After talking to Dorothy (Sophie Thompson), Mrs. Wilson goes to her room distraught and is comforted by Mrs. Croft.
The guests drive away, joined by the dismissed Elsie, though she has taken an odd souvenir from the house — Sir William's pet dog. Lady Sylvia waves good-bye to her guests and re-enters Gosford Park, with Jennings closing the doors behind her.