Jan 12, 2002

Gosford Park

Altman's latest foray into horizontal storytelling succeeds mostly in showing the limits of this approach.

Horizontal storytelling is the result of increasing the number of major characters and emphasizing simultaneous action over sequential action.

The primary advantages of horizontal storytelling are that it allows you to explore a society, show the society's effect on the individual and compare characters.

These advantages quickly dissipate, however, the more horizontal you make the story. At some point the tensile strength of the bridge connecting characters becomes so weak that the center does not hold and the entire structure comes crashing down. If there are too many characters within a two-hour span, each character is so superficial that comparison between any of them is useless.

That is precisely what happens in Gosford Park. The writers steal their basic idea from the French classic Rules of the Game in an attempt to show the corruption at the core of a class system. But by adding so many characters to the mix, no one comes across as more than a resume. The writers have just enough time to show that almost everyone is hiding something, but not enough to make any of it matter to the audience.

As a result there is no emotional payoff for any of the characters in pain. And the comparisons between them yield nothing more than the insight that the master-servant relationship is crippling to both.

But that is something we all should have discovered long ago.