With its well-heeled English
country manor setting and its oh-so-deco vintage year (1932),
one might wonder what in "Nashville" the director is doing
here: inveterate nose-thumber Robert Altman navigating a maze of
uppity morals and mores straight out of "Masterpiece Theater" in
full literary flower?
Working with one of his
trademark colliding-ensemble casts, whose chattering
characters constantly step on each other's verbal heels,
Altman has adapted to the upscale environs without
missing a beat, or an opportunity.
On the surface,
"Gosford Park" is
one of those familiar weekend-in-the-country affairs, in which
the isolation of a group of distinct character types allows
for the nurturing of a perfect microcosm -- like bacteria in a
petri dish. Midway through, there's a murder, and an
accompanying comic-relief detective, which shoves it another
But all this crisscrossing
familiarity doesn't breed contempt, thanks to Altman's entirely
distinctive traffic control measures.
The country estate belongs to Sir
William (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas)
McCardle, who are also throwing the shebang, complete with
afternoon shooting party.
Among the upstairs-invited are
real-life British matinee idol Ivor Novello (a bemused and
elegant Jeremy Northam), star of Hitchcock's 1926 "The Lodger";
Lady Sylvia's wizened and haughty aunt, Constance (Maggie Smith
in full Maggie Smith throttle); Lord Stockbridge (Charles
Dance), Lady Sylvia's even haughtier brother-in-law; American
film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), researching his
impending production of "Charlie Chan in London"; and assorted
other relatives and friends, almost all of them undergoing some
kind of turning-point crisis.
And because this is also a tale
of servants and those they serve, each guest gets a matching
valet or maid, whose privileged points of view become those of
Altman's readily obvious rule of
thumb in the upstairs sequences is that at least one of the
servants must be present as a witness to events. When the help
regroups downstairs, the information is disseminated as needed
-- for them and us.
Down below, tending to the
guests' every needs (and we do mean every need), are the servers.
Among them: McCordles' head butler Jennings (Alan Bates); Mrs.
Wilson (Helen Mirren), head housekeeper; Mrs. Croft ("Upstairs,
Downstairs" alumna Eileen Atkins), the head cook; Probert, Sir
William's valet (Derek Jacobi); Elsie (Emily Watson), the head
maid; George (Richard E. Grant), the head footman; Henry Denton
(Ryan Phillippe), film producer Weissman's Irish valet; Mary
(Kelly Macdonald), cranky Constance's maid; and Robert Parks
(Clive Owen), brooding valet to Lord Stockbridge.
Armed with a stiletto script by
Julian Fellowes (Shadowlands)
and employing a supple camera
that rarely reposes, Altman goes to town, taking in the airs and
pretensions of his social elite and filtering them through the
lives of those below and on the sidelines.
Not a single member of the huge
cast -- right on down the line to the seemingly misplaced,
all-too-American Phillippe as the insinuating Irish valet --
fails to come through.
For serious cinephiles, Jean
Renoir's 1939 masterpiece, "La Regle Du Jeu"
immediately come to mind, especially around the time of the
pheasant-shooting sequence, which, a la the fox hunt in "Rules,"
is staged to amplify the follies of the class at hand.
For television devotees,
"Upstairs, Downstairs" will be the reference point,
especially as the intrigue surrounding the relationships between
served and servers begins to pan out.
And for the murder-mystery buffs
lured in by the "whodunit" promise of the ad campaign, the wry
spectre of Dame Agatha Christie will doubtless be hovering in
every nook and cranny, especially after the killing and the
arrival of a quirky inspector (Stephen Fry) to sort it out.
Though some of the accompanying
satire is anything but subtle (is there an easier target than
the upper classes of a long-ago age?), the sheer liveliness of
Altman's complex orchestrations is the abiding joy of "Gosford
If the murder, the motivations
and the outcome all edge toward the obvious, the characters are
rich enough to withstand it all -- true intersecting denizens of
an authentically chaotic Robert Altman repertory.
On the downside, but to no
surprise to fans of Altman's work, the movie is often hard to
follow. His style of filmmaking involves entanglements of
characters and subplots that don't appear to have much to do
with one another at first blush, and Gosford Park takes this to
the next level. Here, the murder takes place at the climax of
this confusion, leaving you rather disoriented in the middle of
the 2-hour-plus drama. Fortunately, the tone loosens up when a
comedy-dim police inspector basically gets nowhere in his
investigation, but the pieces start coming together through the
other characters. The good news is that it all seems to come
together in the end in a way that didn't require grasping every
detail of every scene
Dan Craft and Dan Heller