Gosford Park

You’re invited to a weekend of hunting, gossip and murder. Dress is formal.

Welcome to “Gosford Park,” a smashing British ensemble that blends together the best of Agatha Christie and Merchant Ivory. It’s “Murder on the Orient Express” by way of “Howard’s End,” and the end result is one of director Robert Altman’s best films in years.


The maverick filmmaker redeems himself once again, overcoming the disaster of “Dr. T and the Women” to deliver a film so captivating and full of life you can’t help but be swept up in its drama and intrigue. Blessed with a pedigree cast and a biting, witty labyrinth of a script by Julian Fellowes, Altman relishes in the class struggle between the rich and those who serve them.

Even though “Gosford Park” is far removed from anything Altman has accomplished in the past, Altman makes the genre his own. All of the traditional Altman trademarks are here, but it’s the way the director mixes and matches that makes the film so much fun. At first encounter “Gosford Park” may look and sound like a stuffy British parlor drama, but hang around long enough and you realize that Altman has something more devilish on his mind.

So like the best of Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts) we barely get a chance to catch our breath as we’re thrown into the lion’s den. The den in “Gosford Park” is a stately country estate where a group of rich snobs have gathered for a weekend hunting party. Instead of introducing the characters one by one, Altman dumps all of them on us at once. It’s a clever bit of business that forces us to pay close attention.

Altman likes to have his characters talk over each other, and indeed for the first ten minutes of “Gosford Park” it’s almost impossible to understand everything that is going on. We get little pieces of information here and there, but for the most part we’re as lost as the guests who have just arrived for a little rest and relaxation.

When Altman is on his game, he’s a master storyteller, and he knows how to lure an audience into the story. Since he forces us to pay such close scrutiny during the opening moments, by the time the characters finally settle down we have a true sense of who they are. This is important because there are more than 32 characters weaving their way in and out of the story.

Fellowes screenplay, which is actually a social class comedy disguised as a weekend murder mystery, does a terrific job of distinguishing each and every character. The household is divided into two camps, the rich who inhabit the upstairs, and the servants, who hustle behind the scenes to make sure that everything runs smoothly.

The humor comes in learning that the servants are much smarter than those they serve. They understand their station in life, and have even created their own hierarchy to retain some resemblance of order. The masters are snobs who have never had to earn a real living, relying on old family money to create the illusion of nobility.

Watching these two worlds collide turns “Gosford Park” into a delightful battle of class. The screenplay is told from the perspective of the servants, so nothing happens unless one of them is present in the scene. Since the servants literally have the run of the house, this device ensures that we’re always privy to everything that transpires. Private phone calls, midnight sexual liaisons, family secrets and repressed jealousies all come to light thanks to this arrangement.

The snobs are well represented by Michael Gambon as Sir William McCordle, the owner of Gosford Park whose tight grip on everyone and everything causes dissent among his family, including Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), who comes from an impoverished background and stays with her husband for the status. My favorite relative is Constance (Maggie Smith), Sylvia’s dowager aunt who has no problem thumbing her nose at the family even though she depends on their money to survive.

Jeremy Northam is delicious as Ivor Novello, a silent matinee idol who is finding it tough getting work in talkies, while Bob Balaban (who co-wrote the original story) has a lot of fun with American movie producer Morris Weissman, in England researching his latest Charlie Chan picture.

As the guests arrive, things heat up downstairs. The servants are led by Jennings (Alan Bates), the head manservant. Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) is the head housekeeper, constantly at odds with the staff and the visiting servants. Emily Watson shines as Elsie, the head housemaid whose devotion to Sir William lands her in all sorts of hot water. As Weissman’s valet Henry Denton, Ryan Phillippe arrives on the scene with a Scottish accent so bold we suspect that it’s fake.

There is a fair amount of sexual musical chairs being played, usually between the servants and the snobs, forbidden sexual trysts that could lead to embarrassment and dismissal. Clive Owen makes the rounds as family valet Robert Parks who uses his charm and good looks to good advantage, while Kelly Macdonald is playful as Mary, Constance’s new maid and the object of Parks’ affections.

There’s so much to see and digest that it’s easy to forget that “Gosford Park” is also a murder mystery, but the emphasis isn’t on who did it but why. There’s no shortage of suspects, as bumbling Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) discovers. In keeping with the scripts us versus them tone, Thompson comes off more as an Inspector Clouseau type rather than a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, while his assistant (servant) Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) is the smarter of the two.

There’s also much to appreciate about “Gosford Park,” first and foremost the filmmaker’s ability to make us feel like we’re eavesdropping on the characters most intimate moments. Thanks to Andrew Dunn’s warm and inviting cinematography, we glide in and out of these situations like a fly on the wall. Dunn never allows the camera to stand still. Look closely, even during tight close- ups, and you’ll see that the camera is moving.

This visual trick keeps the story moving forward, even when nothing is happening. Time doesn’t stand still for these characters, so why should the frame they inhabit. Stephen Altman’s production design fills every frame with authentic 1934 period detail. The film looks as rich and lavish as the characters pretend to be.

While not for everyone, “Gosford Park” should please those who appreciate bright, witty dialogue, engaging performances, and a director willing to recreate the wheel.

MURDER AND MAID SERVICE

Altman mixes mystery and meddlers in winning ensemble comedy

GOSFORD PARK

Alan Bates, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson. Directed by Robert Altman. Rated R. 137 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $8.00



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