Robert Altman is surely the most resilient of great filmmakers, as well as the most variable. An unmitigated disaster like “Dr. T and the Women” (2000) might have flattened most directors, but as he has so often in the past–just think of how he rebounded from earlier duds like “Popeye” (1980) and “Ready to Wear” (1994)–Altman has gotten up from the mat, dusted himself off and tried again, this time with great success. “Gosford Park” is a classic Altman ensemble effort inhabited by a swarm of colorful characters whose lives intersect within a confined space and time. It’s not, however, a redundancy trying simply to recapture the ambience and effect of earlier pictures like “Nashville.” Instead it’s a period piece, set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, which proves to be simultaneously a portrait of an upper-crust society in its final stages of glory, a depiction of the relationship of mutual dependence and animosity existing between higher and lower classes, and a sendup of the Agatha Christie brand of genteel British murder mystery. Though all the elements don’t add up into an entirely satisfying whole and some of its social commentary is a trifle heavy-handed, for the most part the film is a joyous confection invigorated by a superb cast that seems to be having a wonderful time. Their pleasure, as it turns out, is infectious.
“Gosford Park” can be described as a cross between “Upstairs Downstairs” and Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death” (1976), with a dollop of progressive socio-political commentary thrown in for good measure. The date is November, 1932, and the setting a shooting party at the lush titular estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), a nouveau riche businessman married to Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a much younger woman from an old but impoverished aristocratic family; they have one child, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford). Their guests include Lady Sylvia’s aunt Constance, the penurious but snooty countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), and Sylvia’s two younger sisters, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), who’s married to Raymond (Charles Dance), a snobbish lord, and Lavinia (Natasha Wightman), the wife of a broke and desperate ex- army man, Anthony Meredith (Tom Hallander). Also on hand are Freddie Nesbitt (James Whilby), a smarmy, jobless gent married to commoner Mabel (Claudie Blakley) and blackmailing Isobel over a romantic indiscretion; two dissolute young noblemen, Lord Rupert (Laurence Fox) and Jeremy Blond (Trent Ford), the former of whom plans to court the wealthy Isobel; and film star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who brings along an American associate, Morris Weisman (Bob Balban), who happens to produce the Charlie Chan movies.
A large contingent of servants is required to meet the needs of all these characters, of course. Those resident on the estate include the head butler, Jennings (Alan Bates); housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren); cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins); Probert (Derek Jacobi), Sir William’s personal valet; Elsie (Emily Watson), the head housemaid who’s having a fling with Sir William; devious first footman George (Richard E. Grant); and a raft of under-maids and servants, the most notable of whom is Dorothy (Sophie Thompson), who pines for Jennings to notice her. Added to these are the servants the guests bring with them: Mary (Kelly Macdonald), the new maid whom Constance is “breaking in”; Parks (Clive Owen), Lord Raymond’s handsome and enigmatic new man; and Henry Denton (Ryan Philippe), Weisman’s oddly forward, uncouth valet.
The first two-thirds of the film are largely devoted to drawing room comedy-drama involving the interrelationships among these disparate figures, and for the most part writer Julian Fellowes manages to keep all the intricacies clear, offering sharply observed moments of interaction and revealing glimpses of underlying motives. After ninety minutes or so of “Upstairs Downstairs” flippancy, however, things take an abrupt turn when several twists occur and one of the leading characters meets a violent end, resulting in the entrance of a singularly obtuse policeman, Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and his exasperated assistant Constable Dexter (Ron Webster). In the course of the investigation we–though not they–learn some dark secrets that tie together various of the characters and explain the tragic reason that lay behind the murder. The movie ends as the guests depart and the household can return to a semblance of normalcy.
What makes “Gosford Park” work is the sharpness of much of Fellowes’ writing–laugh-out-loud moments alternate with sequences that are actually quite touching–and the dexterity with which Altman (along with cinematographer Andrew Dunn and editor Tim Squyres) keeps the characters vibrant, the twists of the plot clear and even the topography of the action intelligible. The director has always been a master of the crowd scene, panning from speaker to speaker and location to location to focus the viewer’s attention precisely where it belongs, and he puts that skill to near-magical use here. He’s abetted by the splendid efforts of his production team– designer Stephen Altman, costumer Jenny Beavan and set decorator Anna Pinnock in particular– who recreate the world between the wars beautifully (and, no doubt, on a relatively small budget). Patrick Doyle has also contributed a quite lovely but happily unobtrusive score.
And then there is the magnificent cast. Of course everyone can’t get equal attention, and some individuals stand out–particularly Gambon, Smith, Northam, Balaban, Mirren, Watson, Macdonald, Owen and Philippe. (Even such masterful performers as Bates and Jacobi are put relatively in the shade; Grant doesn’t have a great deal to do, but he’s memorable simply by reason of his extraordinary ability to turn up his nose scornfully at virtually everyone within sight.) But what makes watching the film such a joy is that all of the actors work so well with one another. These are generous performances which aim to complement, rather than overshadow, those surrounding them; watching them is like enjoying the communal enterprise of a theatrical repertory troupe, and you can almost feel their happiness at contributing to Altman’s cinematic chess game.
There are some problems in “Gosford Park.” The portrayal of Inspector Thompson is so broad that he almost seems a British counterpart of Inspector Clouseau, and as a result one half-expects a Anthony Shaffer-style “Sleuth” twist at the close (and might be rather disappointed when it doesn’t occur). The circumstances surrounding Weisman and Denton are kept overly opaque, and their treatment in the final act isn’t entirely satisfactory. And the moralizing toward the close, with its hint of Marxist notions of oppression and abuse, gets a mite heavy, especially since it’s only the misdeeds of one of many morally dubious characters that get punished. As a whole, however, the picture is a grand and glorious entertainment, and a welcome return to form by one of today’s directorial giants.