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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘THE SHOOTING PARTY’ MINDS ITS MANNERS

Times Film Critic

Moments after “The Shooting Party” (at the Cineplex and the Brentwood One Friday) begins, a rare sense of security settles over its audience--the sense that one is in the hands of marvelously assured film makers.

Virtues you thought had disappeared forever glow from the screen: Wit that doesn’t need to call attention to itself; impeccable casting; characters of all ages , with something to say and the ability to say it; the adaptation of a novel (by Isabel Colegate) into a screenplay that might stand as a model of transformation from one medium to another, and breathtakingly fine ensemble acting.

A perfectly made film, “The Shooting Party” catches the twilight of the Edwardian age (1913) as a group of aristocrats gather for a weekend of sport at the estate of Sir Randolph and Lady Minnie Nettleby (James Mason, in his last great role before his death last July, and Dorothy Tutin).

It is a time when manners, details, the correct thing correctly done, are still a delicate art. The three taboos of dinner conversation are death, disease and dentistry. The curve of a lovely woman’s cheek is even more enticing when glimpsed through the veil of her riding hat. And wrong studs on a dinner shirt reveal more than bad form: Eventually, they indicate a loss of respect for the fabric of one’s life.

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Director Alan Bridges (“The Hireling,” “Return of the Soldier”) and screenwriter/adapter Julian Bond, whose credits include “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “The Duchess of Duke Street,” are adept at such nuances. But don’t mistake “The Shooting Party” for “Masterpiece Theatre” on a big screen; to do that would be to miss the film’s rhythms and its crisscrossing of confrontations, in the delicious spirit of a Frederick Ashton ballet.

The weekend’s heady collection includes husbands, wives, lovers, servants, villagers and a gaggle of children. Chief among the couples are the edgily competitive Lord and Lady Hartlip (Edward Fox and Cheryl Campbell), whose marriage has congealed into a dangerous “arrangement,” and harrumphing Lord (‘Bob’) Lilburn (Robert Hardy) and his much younger, spirited wife, Olivia (Judi Bowker, who looks a good deal like Dorothy McGuire in her “Claudia” days). Olivia’s directness and innocent forthrightness have captivated Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer), a young, idealistic, intensely romantic barrister--exactly the sort of Englishman Rupert Brooke would immortalize in his war poems only two years later.

Other players in this intrigue include a poacher (Gordon Jackson, “Upstairs, Downstairs’ ” splendid Hudson), a crusading eccentric (John Gielgud) and an extravagantly rich bachelor banker, Sir Reuben Hergesheimer (Aharon Ipale)--all admired by Sir Randolph for a wide variety of reasons. There are also several of the Nettleby grandchildren, including coltish 19-year-old Cicely (Rebecca Saire), who has set her cap for a visiting Hungarian nobleman (Joris Stuyck), and 10-year-old Osbert (Nicolas Pietrek), whose pet mallard, Elfrida Beetle, is as good as a minor character herself.

The film is a compendium of treasures, beginning with the fluidity of its editing (Peter Davies), its rich but never cloying photography (Fred Tammes) and its subtle and evocative clothes. Tom Rand (who costumed “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” so memorably) uses chiffons and brocades, egret plumes and pearl trims to reveal more than period, sketching character and the progressions within a character as well.

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In its intelligent and passionate portrayal of loyalties in a diminishing world of privilege, there is not a misstruck note by any member of this large ensemble. A few are cast against expectation, particularly Cheryl Crawford, so insistently religious in “Chariots of Fire” and so desperately predatory here. Dorothy Tutin’s Minnie, who seems unfocused, is actually acutely knowledgeable about everything from her gardens to her grandchildren.

However perfect as every one of the performances are, they are overshadowed by Mason’s Sir Randolph, a lord in every sense of the word. He is knowledgeable to the smallest detail about his domain, compassionate, dryly understated--a man of wide interests, and no small pessimism about his country’s future or the future of his class, so compulsively pleasure-driven and acquisitive. Mason gives us the man in his entirety.

He and Gielgud have an encounter whose felicity in writing and playing seems to be the high point of the film. But then, in the final, tragic scene, Mason takes us even further, to a moment of the most wrenching compassion. If Ralph Richardson could be remembered for his dearly dotty lord in “Greystoke,” it’s as fitting that Mason be remembered as the lord who dispenses such solace in “The Shooting Party” (he is helped by the equally modest and moving performance of his fellow actor in this sequence).

In the opening and closing tableaux, the film carries a faintly self-conscious prescience, as though Flanders fields were over the next gentle, grassy rise (they might has well have been--Sarajevo would be only the next June). Films about life on the edge of a volcano sometimes sink with the weight of What We Know. This is not the case in “The Shooting Party,” which is like an intricate, deftly handled dance at the edge of an abyss.

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