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The Downton Abbey movie is a terrific excuse to revisit Gosford Park

The Downton Abbey movie is a terrific excuse to revisit Gosford Park


Robert Altman’s film was written by Downton Abbey’s creator

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Photo: Universal Studios

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

Gosford Park, a multi-Oscar-nominated 2001 drawing-room mystery, written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Robert Altman. A riff on the classic “murder at a sprawling country estate” story, the movie features a cast of accomplished UK and American actors — including Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Kelly Macdonald, and Ryan Phillippe — playing 1930s rich folks and servants, gathered for a weekend of dining and hunting that gets interrupted by their host’s suspicious death. Altman and Fellowes have fun with the rigidity of the British class system and the arcane rituals of service — just as Fellowes would do again a decade later with the creation of hit TV series Downton Abbey.

Why watch now?

Because the feature film version of Downton Abbey arrives in theaters across the United States this weekend.

Fellowes’ visually splendid, addictively melodramatic series became a sensation when it debuted on ITV in 2010 and then on PBS in the US in 2011. Over the course of its six seasons, Downton Abbey covered roughly 15 years in the life of the landed, aristocratic Crawley family as well as their servants and tenants. Set between 1912 and 1926, the show charts how the turbulence of the early 20th century — the wars, economic booms and busts, and various progressive social causes — eroded England’s old order, closing the curtain on an era when only the idle rich could dictate how their country was run.

The 2015 series finale left the door open for more stories about the Crawleys. The Downton Abbey movie is set in 1927, and it uses the hubbub of a royal visit as a way to catch fans up on what the family and their employees have been up to since the show ended. The two-hour film — running just a little less than the length of three TV episodes — mixes the show’s usual wry humor and exaggerated intrigue into an examination of how even the honor of hosting a king and queen could come to mean something different in a decade marked by pro-democratic and anti-colonialist movements.

From the start, Downton Abbey won acclaim for its lavish re-creations of period fashions and decor. But the show’s massive popularity was just as attributable to its soapy plots, which dealt with forbidden romance, sexual indiscretion, and yes, murder. In that way, the series was a natural successor to Gosford Park. (Downton Abbey was originally developed as a TV version of Gosford Park before Fellowes decided to take the project in a different direction.) On a narrative level, the 2001 Altman movie is like several episodes of the series: over the course of its 137 minutes, it gradually reveals shocking secrets about the relationships between the servants and their employers, while exposing the many sins of the estate’s lord, stabbing victim Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon).

Tonally, Gosford Park is very different from Downton Abbey, thanks largely to Altman. The director had only five years left to live when he made this film, and, at the time, he had recently received a heart transplant. Late in his career, Altman entered a gentler phase, losing a lot of the satirical bite and acerbic cynicism of his earlier movies and replacing them with a genuine affection for watching talented actors do their work. For a film about homicide and class conflict, Gosford Park is surprisingly congenial.

Who it’s for

Anglophiles and Altman fans.

The late, great Robert Altman believed the director’s job was to create a sense of reality — not realism, per se, but a belief within the audience that the world they were seeing extended beyond the bounds of stage or screen. Altman moved the camera restlessly, giving the impression that there was always more to look at than he had the capacity to show. He encouraged his casts to improvise as much as they wanted and to keep talking even when they weren’t the focus of a scene, just in case they ended up in one of his long, drifting shots.

Gosford Park’s cast of theater-trained veterans stayed fairly faithful to Fellowes’ words, aside from some off-handed remarks at the edges of the frame. But Altman and the actors still foster an illusion of spontaneity through their relaxed line-deliveries and subtly reactive facial expressions. (Dame Maggie Smith, who went on to star in Downton Abbey, does as much with an arched eyebrow and a forced smile as she does with Fellowes’ witty quips.) Downton Abbey has sometimes been criticized as reactionary, as Fellowes appears to pine for the vanished England where everyone knew their place. But there isn’t much nostalgia in Gosford Park, which feels deeply lived-in and populated by people who appear exhausted by the burdens of their stations.

Where to see it

Gosford Park is airing on Showtime this month, so it’s available via the Showtime streaming service. To catch up with Downton Abbey, meanwhile, turn to Amazon Prime Video, which is also the home of Fellowes’ first post-Abbey television project, an entertaining miniseries adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel Doctor Thorne.