Downton Abbey returns to the screen this Friday with a new feature film, scripted by original series creator Julian Fellowes and sure to delight fans of the supremely British series. But what are those fans to do after they’ve re-binged every episode of the show, savored all of Maggie Smith‘s delectable zingers, and downed the last bit of tea from the pot?
Well, what if we told you there was another film, also written by Fellowes, that follows a sprawling cast of British aristocrats and servants at a country estate…and features Smith as a gloriously snobbish dowager countess? Take heart, for such a film not only exists but naturally makes the perfect watch for a fan looking to recapture that Downton flavor: 2001’s Gosford Park.
Directed by legendary filmmaker Robert Altman, Gosford Park is an Anglophile’s paradise, interweaving an upstairs-downstairs dramedy of manners with an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, and boasting the best cast of British thespians this side of any Harry Potter film. If you love Downton Abbey and you’ve never seen Gosford, you should watch it post-haste; if you have seen it, the film always rewards a re-watch. While hardly an overlooked gem — it won Fellowes a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and earned another six nominations, and was the second highest-grossing film of Altman’s career — it’s a film that’s largely dropped out of the cultural conversation since its release. (It’s unavailable on the major streaming services, though it can currently be streamed with a Showtime subscription, or rented via iTunes, YouTube, Amazon, and more.) Which makes its greatness all the more ripe for rediscovery.
Set in 1932, the film tells the tale of a weekend gathering at the country estate of Sir William and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott Thomas), which is rather distressingly derailed when a murder occurs one night. In true Christie fashion, almost everyone under the roof has a motive, and there’s a truly dizzying amount of moving parts at play, with half the lords and ladies in the house scheming or canoodling behind the other half’s backs. And lest we forget (for some of the characters certainly do), the servants of the hosts and guests are always watching, always listening, and have reasons more than aplenty to wish one of their masters dead.
And this is where the film’s greatest masterstroke, and most significant connection to Downton, comes into play: Gosford Park‘s murder-mystery trappings serve as a mechanism through which the film, like the series, examines the British class system of the period. Fellowes and Altman steadily parcel out information and revelations throughout the film, slowly bringing a withering indictment of the aristocracy into focus. Not to disclose too much, but by the time all is revealed to the audience, it’s impossible not to shed a tear for those on the bottom rung of the class ladder.
Indeed, while Downton received both praise and criticism for its relatively sympathetic portrayal of upper-crust characters, Gosford Park‘s sympathies decidedly lie with the servants. Just look at one of the film’s standout sequences: the house’s staff pause their work to eavesdrop as one of the guests, a famous actor and musician, entertains their employers with a song. And without descending to caricature, the filmmakers have shown most of the aristocrats to be callous or ineffectual (or both) by story’s end, while the downtrodden servants repeatedly exhibit the cleverness and resourcefulness required to do their jobs well. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the detectives investigating the murder also reflect this dynamic: Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) is bumbling and ignorant, while his assistant Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) picks up on clues Thompson seems to willfully ignore.
If this sounds overly didactic, know that Fellowes and Altman do not sacrifice one jot of entertainment in service of social messaging. The whodunit story line unfolds with a precision that would do Christie proud, with clues masterfully peppered throughout the film. No payoff goes un-planted, and viewers may come away from a second, third, or fourth viewing marveling at the sheer craftsmanship of storytelling on display. (Watch how Altman’s camera repeatedly lingers on bottles and knives.)
And, as noted, the cast is a veritable murderer’s row (sorry), with many Brit actors who ascended to greater popularity stateside in the film’s wake. In addition to Scott Thomas (Emmy-nominated this year for Fleabag) and future Dumbledore Gambon, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Emily Watson, Charles Dance, Kelly Macdonald, Jeremy Northam, and Derek Jacobi all appear, all doing stellar work. And, of course, there’s Smith, delivering a stream of deliciously biting remarks. If only Olivia Colman could have slipped in somewhere.
So before you return to your beloved Abbey, consider taking a detour and joining the weekend festivities at Gosford Park. It’s a trip you may well find yourself wanting to make again and again.