The film 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 received multiple awards and nominations, including seven Academy Award nominations and nine British Academy Film Awards nominations.
In November 1932, the wealthy industrialist Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), his wife, Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), and their daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), are to have a weekend hunting party at their country estate, Gosford Park. The guests are predominately their relations. When they arrive they enter through the front door and will make small talk at tea. Their help will be directed in the servants hall by the head housekeeper, Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren), to their room assignments. Mrs Wilson notices the valet Robert Parks (Clive Owen), who was raised in an orphanage. Parks takes an interest in lady's maid Mary MacEachran (Kelly Macdonald). The head housemaid, Elsie (Emily Watson), guides Mary through the gathering.
After supper, a silver carving knife is found to have gone missing. Lady Sylvia has an assignation with valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe).
The next morning, the men go on a pheasant shoot, and stray birdshot hits Sir William's ear. The ladies join the men for a hunting luncheon where Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander) pleads with Sir William not to back out of a scheme.
Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), is told by Lady Sylvia, while dressing for supper that Sir William may stop her allowance.
At supper, Lady Sylvia offers that Sir William was a First World War profiteer. Elsie addresses her support of Sir William by calling him Billy. The room goes silent. Elsie rushes from the room.
Sir William abruptly leaves the dining room for the library. Mrs Wilson brings him coffee; he wants whiskey. Sir William is irritated when he drinks the whisky.
In the drawing room, actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) plays the piano to lighten the atmosphere. Sir William sits in the library slumped in his chair and an unknown person stabs him. Louisa, Lady Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville) goes to the library; her screams alarm the house.
Lady Sylvia volunteers to introduce bumbling Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and competent Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) to everyone so that they then can go to sleep. Dexter calls attention to the lack of blood from the stab wound.
Denton reveals that he is an actor preparing for a role in a forthcoming film by the American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban). Denton, again, visits Lady Sylvia.
The following morning staff gossip that Sir William was also poisoned. The head cook, Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) shares with the kitchen staff that Sir William was known for seducing the female workers in his factories. If a woman became pregnant, Sir William offered 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 orphanages to take the babies.
Later that night, Inspector Thompson releases the guests. He never interviews the staff.
Parks tells Mary that Sir William was his father, that a son can hate their father, and that he did not poison Sir William. Mary tells Parks that then he did not kill Sir William because he was already dead and anyone should know if they stab a dead body. Parks says that he does not know and does not care if he killed Sir William.
The following morning, Lady Trentham and Lady Sylvia, in the presence of Mary, are talking about the sisters Mrs Croft and Mrs Wilson. Lady Sylvia says that Mrs Wilson was earlier known by the name Parks, Parker or Parkinson.
Mrs Wilson tells Mary that she will never tell Parks that they are related, the mark of a good servant is anticipation, that it is not a crime to stab a dead man, and the important thing is that authorities can never touch Parks.
In private, Mrs Wilson grieves the loss of ever knowing her son, and Mrs Croft acknowledges that what matters is that he is alive.
The last guests, Lady Trentham and the Stockbridges, depart.
Above stairs:Maggie Smith as Lady Constance Trentham
Michael Gambon as Sir William McCordle
Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Sylvia McCordle
Camilla Rutherford as Lady Isobel McCordle
Charles Dance as Lord Raymond Stockbridge
Geraldine Somerville as Lady Louisa Stockbridge
Tom Hollander as Lt. Commander Anthony Meredith
Natasha Wightman as Lady Lavinia Meredith
James Wilby as Freddie Nesbitt
Claudie Blakley as Mabel Nesbitt
Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello
Bob Balaban as Morris Weissman
Ryan Phillippe as Henry Denton
Below stairs:Kelly Macdonald as Mary Maceachran
Clive Owen as Robert Parks
Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson
Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Croft
Alan Bates as Mr. Jennings
Emily Watson as Elsie
Derek Jacobi as Probert
Richard E. Grant as George
Sophie Thompson as Dorothy
Others:Stephen Fry as Inspector Thompson
The film is a study of the British class system during the 1930s; Stephen Fry, Inspector Thompson in the film, says that it shows the upper class's dependency on a servant class. A number of secondary themes are also explored. For example, the film takes a subtle look at sexual mores during the 1930s. As it is set in 1932, between the world wars, the impact of the First World War is also explored in the film's screenplay. It also mentions the decline of the British Empire and the peerage system. Writing for PopMatters, Cynthia Fuchs described surface appearances, rather than complex interpersonal relationships, as a theme of the film.
Salon.com critic Steven Johnson notes a revival of the manor house mystery style, popularised by the writings of Agatha Christie, in the screenplay for Gosford Park. He called it a blend between this literary style and that of the 19th century novel. Bob Balaban, an actor and producer for Gosford Park, says that the idea of creating a murder mystery told by the servants in the manor was an interesting one for him and Altman.
Themes from the film were picked up and integrated into the series Downton Abbey by Julian Fellowes. Maggie Smith starred again in her role as a dowager countess, this time her title not being Trentham but Grantham; the family are related to the Marquess (rather than the Earl) of Flintshire.
In 1999, Bob Balaban asked Robert Altman if there were something they could develop together, and Altman suggested a whodunit. Altman wanted to create an Agatha Christie-like country house murder mystery that explored that way of life; he called the film a "classic situation: all suspects under one roof". Altman was also inspired by the 1930s films, The Rules of the Game and Charlie Chan in London. Altman chose British actor and writer Julian Fellowes to write the screenplay, because Fellowes knew how country houses operated. Fellowes, who had never written a feature film before, received a telephone call from Altman, who asked him to come up with some characters and stories. Fellowes was given a brief outline of the film: it was to be "set in a country house in the '30s and to have a murder in there somewhere, but for it to really be an examination of class." Altman also wanted the film to explore the three groups of people: the family, the guests, and the servants. Of the call, Fellowes said, "All the way through I thought this can't be happening—a 50 year old fat balding actor is phoned up by an American movie director—but I did work as if it was going to happen."
The original title of the film was The Other Side of the Tapestry, but Altman thought it was awkward. Fellowes began looking through some books and came up with Gosford Park. Altman said: "Nobody liked it, everyone fought me on it. But when you make a picture using a name, that's its name. It's not a gripping title. But then MASH wasn't either."
Fellowes says the screenplay was "not an homage to Agatha Christie, but a reworking of that genre." Fellowes was credited not only as the film's writer but as a technical advisor as well, meaning he wrote portions of the film as it was being produced. He notes that in certain large scenes with many characters, the actors were left room to improvise.
Arthur Inch, the retired butler of Sir Richard and Lady Kleinwort, was the consultant on correct procedures and arrangements for dining on the set. Inch is credited as "Butler" immediately before Altman as Director in the final credits. Ruth Mott was the consultant for the kitchen, and Violet Liddle for the parlour maids.
In Gosford Park, as in many of his other films, Altman had a list of actors he intended to appear in the film before it was cast formally. The film's casting director was Mary Selway, whom producer David Levy described as knowing many British actors. Very few actors who were offered parts did not end up in the film. Jude Law dropped out of the production just before the shoot began, and he was replaced by Ryan Phillippe. Kenneth Branagh and Robert Bathurst were both tied down by scheduling conflicts. Alan Rickman, Joely Richardson and Judi Dench were also considered for roles in the film. The cast is notable for featuring two knights (Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi) and two dames (Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins). Three other members of the cast (Alan Bates, Helen Mirren and Kristin Scott Thomas) were later elevated to that status.
Filming was conducted at Wrotham Park for the exteriors, staircase, dining room and drawing room, and Syon House for the upstairs bedrooms. The opening sequence outside Lady Trentham's home was shot at Hall Barn, near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, whose grounds were also used as the scene for lunch after the shoot. Sound stages were built to film the scenes of the manor's downstairs area. Shepperton Studios was used for off-location filming.
The film was shot with two cameras, both moving perpetually in opposite directions. The cameras pointed toward no specific area, intended to cause the audience to move their eyes throughout the scene. Altman notes that most of the film's cast had experience in theatre and in film, meaning they had acted in situations where the view of the audience is not on one specific actor, and each audience member sees a slightly different image of the players on stage. Andrew Dunn, the film's cinematographer, appreciated the co-operative nature of Gosford Park's filming process. He shot the film on Kodak Vision Expression 500T film stock generally with two Panavision cameras, using lighting ranging from relatively dim candles to bright hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamps. Editor Tim Squyres described the editing process on Gosford Park as an unusual one, as the dual cameras used were generally located in the same areas when filming, instead of the more standard method of setting up a scene directly.
Gosford Park premiered on 7 November 2001 at the London Film Festival. The film then received a limited release across cinemas in the United States on 26 December 2001, before being widely released in January 2002 by USA Films. It was released on 1 February 2002 in the United Kingdom.
In its limited release opening weekend, the film grossed a mere $241,219, hitting No. 23 in the box office that weekend. In its wide release, it grossed $3,395,759; by the end of its run on 6 June 2002, Gosford Park grossed $41,308,615 in the domestic box office and a worldwide total of $87,754,044. With that final total, Gosford Park became Altman's second most successful film at the box office after his 1970 film, MASH.
The film received critical acclaim; review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 86% of 152 critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7.5 out of 10. According to the site's critics consensus, "A mixture of Upstairs, Downstairs; Clue; and perceptive social commentary, Gosford Park ranks among director Altman's best." Metacritic, which assigns a score of 1–100 to individual film reviews, gives the film an averaged rating of 90 based on 34 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim."
Roger Ebert awarded it his highest rating of four stars, describing the story as "such a joyous and audacious achievement it deserves comparison with his [Robert Altman's] very best movies." Ebert specifically noted a quality of the film that many Altman films share: a focus on character rather than plot. Emanuel Levy, an independent critic, gave Gosford Park an A minus rating. He described one of its themes as "illuminating a society and a way of life on the verge of extinction", placing the interwar setting as an integral part of the film's class study. However, he notes that because Altman is an independent observer of the society he portrays in the film, it does not have the biting qualities of his previous social commentaries such as Short Cuts, set in the director's home country of the United States. Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader called it a "Masterpiece."
Gosford Park's cinematography was a focus of several critics. CNN's Paul Clinton praised Andrew Dunn's camera work, describing it as "lush and rich; the camera glides up and down the stairs of the grand estate, the period look is beautifully crafted." Ed Gonzalez of the Internet publication Slant Magazine writes that "Altman's camera is the star of Gosford Park" and that the film's cinematography is used as an aid to its storytelling. Michael Phillips placed Gosford Park at number nine on his list of Best Films of the Decade. The film was placed at 82 on Slant Magazine's list of best films of the 2000s.
Gosford Park was nominated for 61 different awards following its release, winning 25 of them. There were seven nominations for Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director, both of which it lost to A Beautiful Mind); Fellowes won the Best Original Screenplay. At the 55th British Academy Film Awards, the film was nominated for nine British Academy awards, winning Best British Film and Best Costume Design (Jenny Beavan). Mirren, Smith and Watson were all nominated for Best European Actress at the European Film Awards. The film received five nominations at the 59th Golden Globe Awards; Altman won the Award for 'Best Director'.
At the 8th Screen Actors Guild Awards Mirren won 'Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role' and the ensemble cast collectively won 'Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture'. The film won four more 'Best Cast' awards from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Florida Film Critics Circle, and Online Film Critics Society. Fellowes received recognition for the film's screenplay from the Writers Guild of America, where he won the Best Original Screenplay award. The film's score composer, Patrick Doyle, received two nominations for his work. Doyle was nominated for Composer of the Year from the American Film Institute and he won the award for Soundtrack Composer of the Year from the World Soundtrack Awards.
The region 1 DVD of Gosford Park was released on 25 June 2002, with the region 2 release on 3 December 2002. The critic Ed Gonzalez reviewed the DVD negatively, calling the picture quality "atrocious on the small screen", going on to say that "the image quality of this video transfer is downright lousy from start to finish." However, reviewer Robert Mack generally wrote favourably of the picture quality, noting excellence in the shots' detail and sharpness and the lack of compression artefacts, but describing an unfavourable darkness to scenes filmed within the manor house. Both reviewers commented positively on the film's score and soundtrack. Gonzalez wrote that "Gosford Park sounds amazing for a film so dialogue-dependent" and Mack that "the audio transfer is about as good as it can get on a movie of this style."
Patrick Doyle composed the film's score. Doyle said that it can take him up to six months to create a film score, but Altman asked him to write and compose the music for Gosford Park in less than five weeks. Doyle recorded the soundtrack at the London Air-Edel Recording Studios in October 2001. The soundtrack also features six original songs by composer and playwright, Ivor Novello. Jeremy Northam, who plays Novello, sings all the songs and his brother, Christopher, accompanies him on the piano. The soundtrack was released on 15 January 2002.