"Gosford Park" is an amusing amalgam, the surprisingly happy child of the cross-breeding of an Agatha Christie-style plot with an "Upstairs, Downstairs" setting. Even more unexpectedly, its large ensemble cast, which has become something of a broken record for director Robert Altman, functions here as advertised.
Altman, of course, with "MASH," "Nashville," "The Player" and the like, has made some of the most celebrated ensemble films. Yet, though like Woody Allen he has his supporters no matter what he does, for most viewers it's been nearly 10 years since an Altman film has been as consistently entertaining as this one is.
The year is 1932, the setting England, and the event a weekend shooting party at palatial Gosford Park hosted by the abrasive Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his ultra-snob wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Lots of folks have been invited, including a genuine celebrity, but an unexpected murder will turn out to be the weekend's main talking point. Although there's not a lot more going on in this film than in one of the Charlie Chan pictures that figures in the plot, Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes use a number of techniques to attract our attention and keep us interested, starting with the way the film introduces the weekend guests. Or, to be more accurate, the way it doesn't.
Except for the haughty Constance, countess of Trentham (an especially irresistible Maggie Smith), the real-life matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), he of the Charlie Chan movies, all the other people at Gosford Park, including our host and hostess and a horde of servants, are thrown at us all at once as they simultaneously arrive at the front door in a blizzard of tweeds, marcelled hair and tony accents.
It's a technique that's meant to be disorienting, to leave us dizzy with pleasant confusion, and it does. Eventually, to be sure, we do sort things out and learn to recognize our hosts, Lady Sylvia's two sisters and their husbands, and yet another young couple. They're all united by being: (a) unhappily married, (b) much poorer than anyone suspects, and (c) often as not, supported by the self-made but crass Sir William.
Along with these folks come their servants, and one of the pleasures of "Gosford Park" is what an intensely detailed look below stairs the film gives us. Working as feverishly as an army on a forced march, the serving class turns out to have a parallel and equally rigid hierarchy that controls where servants sit, when they eat and demands that visiting valets and maids be called by the last name of their employer to keep confusion at a minimum.
Many of the cast's top British actors have below-stairs roles, including Alan Bates as Jennings the butler, Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson the housekeeper, Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Croft the cook, Derek Jacobi as Sir William's valet, Richard E. Grant as George the first footman and the always adroit Emily Watson as Elsie the head housemaid.
When it isn't being a murder mystery (which is most of the time), "Gosford Park" is concerned with the complex, symbiotic relationship between those upstairs and those below, individuals who are often smarter than the people they wait on. The points about aristocracy's unthinking sense of privilege, albeit familiar, are nicely made, and naturally there's some come-hither looks exchanged between the more attractive of the servants, like the handsome valet Robert Parks (Clive Owen of "Croupier") and Mary Maceachran ("Trainspotting's" Kelly Macdonald), Constance's naive but intrepid new maid.
Though "Gosford Park" has surprises in its plot, it still is longer than it need be; those Charlie Chan movies, after all, never exceeded 70 minutes in length. Still, it's the style of the thing, not the plot, that is the attraction here, the great way the cast has with the snarky dialogue, how Scott Thomas, for instance, bites off her words with the snap of a fresh radish.
The treat of treats in this film, however, is Maggie Smith's turn as the imperious countess. Constance is the queen of rip-roaring snobs, and her cutting remarks, especially those directed at poor Ivor Novello for his plebian film stardom, make her the soul sister to "The Importance of Being Earnest's" imperious Lady Bracknell. With characters like her, even unnecessary length is easily forgiven.
MPAA rating: R, for language and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: as genteel as R gets.
Eileen Atkins...Mrs. Croft
Bob Balaban...Morris Weissman
Michael Gambon...Sir William McCordle
Richard E. Grant...George
Kelly Macdonald...Mary Maceachran
Helen Mirren...Mrs. Wilson
Jeremy Northam...Ivor Novello
Clive Owen...Robert Parks
Ryan Phillippe...Henry Denton
Maggie Smith...Constance, countess
Kristin Scott Thomas...Lady Sylvia
In association with Capitol Films and the Film Council, a Sandcastle 5 production in association with Chicagofilms and Medusa Film, released by USA Films. Director Robert Altman. Producers Robert Altman, Bob Balaban, David Levy. Executive producers Jane Barclay, Sharon Harel, Robert Jones, Hannah Leader. Screenplay Julian Fellowes, based on an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Editor Tim Squyres. Costumes Jenny Beavan. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Stephen Altman. Supervising art director John Frankish. Set decorator Anna Pinnock. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.
In limited release.