Movie review, 'Gosford Park'

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Robert Altman is a master of ensemble movies, and in "Gosford Park" he gives us one of his best: a British period murder mystery for connoisseurs, a scintillating comedy-drama and one of his most richly moving and entertaining pictures.

"Gosford Park" works like a dream, even though at first it seems an improbable project for Altman: an Agatha Christie-style country manor murder mystery set among the British upper classes in 1932, on a hunting party weekend. Christie is the inspiration; the story is patterned after "And Then There Were None" ("Ten Little Indians"), "Towards Zero" and many of her other puzzle-thrillers. But the handling suggests something weightier: "The Remains of the Day" or the BBC series "Upstairs, Downstairs" (whose co-creator, Eileen Atkins, is cast here as Mrs. Croft the cook). Even more, "Gosford Park" echoes Jean Renoir's great 1939 romantic comedy-drama "The Rules of the Game." "Gosford Park" has a superb cast and a witty, probing Julian Fellowes script (from Altman's and actor-producer Bob Balaban's original idea), done in Altman's special style: a ballet of improvisation and character play. Working with dozens of the best British movie actors -- Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren to name just a few -- Altman transports us into another world. Then, he and the actors keep building up that world and making it denser and more real, until, like a Brueghel painting, it seems to burst the boundaries of its frame.

Like Renoir, Altman shows a rigid, hierarchical community -- the masters upstairs and servants downstairs -- in a joyously evenhanded, free-ranging style. Gosford Park belongs to a randy, bullying, self-made millionaire, Sir William McCordle (Gambon), who married into the aristocracy, wedding the cool, lewd Lady Sylvia (Thomas) and winding up with a retinue of relations and hangers-on that includes their daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), Sylvia's mother, Countess Constance of Trentham (Smith), Sylvia's two sisters Louisa and Lavinia (Geraldine Somerville and Natasha Wightman) and their husbands Lord Stockbridge and Anthony Meredith (Charles Dance and Tom Hollander), plus Isobel's poor suitor Lord Rupert Standish (Laurence Fox), his pal Jeremy (Trent Fore) and the caddish Honorable Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) and his awkward wife, Mabel (Claudie Blakley).

Capping the guest list are two odd-men-out from the movie business, both gay: Sir William's cousin, the (real-life) movie star and man of the theater Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Northam) and an MGM movie producer, Morris Weismann (Bob Balaban, also the movie's co-producer).

Sir William has a large staff of servants, run by the martinet Jennings (Alan Bates), the crisply competent Mrs. Wilson (Mirren) and the crusty cook Mrs. Croft (Atkins). Below them: the sexy head housemaid Elsie (Watson), the footmen (Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Swift), Sir William's valet Probert (Jacobi) and more maids and cooks. Servants also accompany the outside guests: Countess Constance's Scots maid Mary (Kelly McDonald), Lord Stockbridge's cynical valet Parks (Clive Owen of "Croupier") and Weissmann's cocky man Denton (Ryan Phillippe). The movie's fatuously egotistical detective, the absurdly self-assured, inept Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry), may dismiss the servants as suspects, but we can't.

The murder comes more than halfway through the movie, after we've observed these characters through several meals, amours and the hunt itself. Altman is quite casual about introducing his several dozen characters; he simply plops us into the action, recording everything with two cameras, both filming each scene simultaneously. But his casualness isn't slipshod.

"Gosford Park" is beautifully orchestrated. As with most great movies, you can watch it repeatedly and keep picking up new things and relationships. "Gosford Park" is a masterpiece set in a world most of us know only from "Masterpiece Theater." Being set in 1932, several years before the war that helped write a closing chapter to the British Empire and its caste system, it shows how that system perverted human relationships, sometimes amusingly, sometimes tragically.

Both the human drama and the murder mystery keep underscoring how complex and fragile this world is. Andrew Dunn's camerawork, filled with long takes and sweeping tracking shots that deliberately recall the period romances of Max Ophuls, suggests a lost, evanescent beauty and elegance. But that look is in striking contrast to the venality, pettiness and lust that dominate the household, as family and guests swirl greedily around Lord William, whose "sweat shop" factory money supports them all. Altman, who comes from the upper classes of Kansas City, unsparingly exposes the vices and silliness of the British aristocracy. But like Renoir, who confessed he would have loved to spend a weekend with the characters of "Rules of the Game," he also lets us enjoy them.

"Gosford Park" boasts dozens of the finest British actors -- including four stage aristocrats, Dames Smith and Atkins and Sirs Gambon and Jacobi -- and they're all magnificent.

More important, they're truly an ensemble. Every cast member was present for the entire 12-week shoot, and they work together with a style and selflessness inspiring to watch. One might single out Maggie Smith -- because she has so many deliciously nasty jibes and delivers them with such wicked relish -- but all her colleagues have great moments too. The subject of the film may be class distinctions and old injustices, but the cast itself seems a lovingly strong, well-connected community.

The world that Altman, Fellowes, Balaban and the rest evoke here -- grand, funny, hypocritical, rigid and doomed -- is, in some way, the lost sentimental world of "might have been" Northam sings about plaintively in the Ivor Novello song that closes "Gosford Park." But it's also a seedbed of the world we know today: one with few aristocrats but similar injustices. Altman paints it with true mastery. No director, except Renoir himself, has ever been better with ensembles than Altman, and "Gosford Park " is as good as "M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "Short Cuts" or anything else he's done. If, in the end, he seems more acid and unforgiving than Renoir, they share something important: a real joy in creating imaginary communities, in the whole filmmaking-theatrical process.

I warn you, though: For mystery addicts and film buffs alike, this is a movie that demands to be seen more than once. You'll enjoy it even more when you know who done it.

4 stars
"Gosford Park"

Directed by Robert Altman; written by Julian Fellowes, based on idea by Altman and Bob Balaban; photographed by Andrew Dunn; edited by Tim Squyres; production designed by Stephen Altman; music by Patrick Doyle; produced by Altman, Balaban, David Levy. A USA Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:17. MPAA rating: R (language and sexuality).
Cast (in credits order)
Michael Gambon....Sir William McCordle
Kristin Scott Thomas....Lady Sylvia McCordle
Camilla Rutherford....Isobel McCordle
Maggie Smith....Constance, Countess of Trentham
Charles Dance....Raymond, Lord Stockbridge
Geraldine Somerville....Louisa, Lady Stockbridge
Tom Hollander.... Lieutenant Commander Anthony Meredith
Natasha Wightman....Lady Lavinia Meredith
James Wilby....The Hon. Freddie Nesbitt
Claudie Blakley....Mabel Nesbitt
Laurence Fox....Lord Rupert Standish
Trent Ford....Jeremy Blond
Jeremy Northam....Ivor Novello
Bob Balaban....Morris Weissman
Alan Bates....Jennings (The McCordles' Butler)
Helen Mirren....Mrs. Wilson (The Housekeeper)
Eileen Atkins....Mrs. Croft (The Cook)
Derek Jacobi....Probert (Sir William's Valet)
Emily Watson....Elsie (Head Housemaid)
Richard E. Grant....George (First Footman)
Jeremy Swift....Arthur (Second Footman)
Meg Wynn Owen....Lewis (Lady Sylvia's Maid)
Sophie Thompson....Dorothy (Still Room Maid)
Teresa Churcher....Bertha (Head Kitchen Maid)
Sarah Flind....Ellen (Junior Kitchen Maid)
Lucy Cohu....Lottie (Junior Kitchen Maid)
Finty Williams....Janet (Housemaid)
Emma Buckley....May (Housemaid)
Laura Harling....Ethel (Scullery Maid)
Tilly Gerrard....Maud (Scullery Maid)
Will Beer....Albert (Servants Hall Footman)
Gregor Henderson-Begg....Fred (Bootboy)
Leo Bill....Jim (Oddjob Man)
Ron Puttock....Strutt (Gamekeeper)
Adrian Preater....McCordles' Loader
Kelly Macdonald....Mary Macreachran (Constance's Maid)
Clive Owen....Robert Parks (Raymond's Valet)
Ryan Phillippe....Henry Denton
Joanna Maude....Renee (Louisa's Maid)
Adrian Scarborough....Barnes (Anthony's Valet)
Frances Low....Sarah (Lavinia's Maid)
John Atterbury....Merriman (Constance's Chaffeur)
Frank Thornton (I)....Burkett (Constance's Butler)
Stephen Fry....Inspector Thompson
Ron Webster (I)....Constable Dexter Ute Lemper....Imogene (uncredited)

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.

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