Gosford Park

There has been no shortage of employment for British actors this year. Gosford Park, along with Harry Potter and The Fellowship of the Ring, provided a multitude of great roles for actors from across the pond. Gosford Park especially, since it is the latest film from auteur Robert Altman (Dr. T and the Women, Cookie's Fortune), known for his huge ensemble casts. Gosford Park, a combination between Agatha Christie and the game of Clue, is especially nice because it is the best Altman film in recent memory. It is a funny murder mystery and a skewering of the British class system circa 1930. Everything takes place over the course of a weekend at Gosford Park, the estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon, Sleepy Hollow, The Insider) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas, Up at the Villa, Random Hearts). They invited a large number of people for a weekend hunting party, and the movie begins with the guests arriving.

It's great opening shot, highlighting both what Altman refers to as "above stairs" (the guests) and "below stairs" (their servants). There is a flurry of activity as the arrogant guests arrive, meanwhile the servants operate efficiently. The snootiest guest is Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Tea with Mussolini) and William's sister, and her new servant Mary (Kelly Macdonald, Two Family House, The Loss of Sexual Innocence). They join famous actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam, The Golden Bowl, An Ideal Husband), American movie producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, The Majestic, Ghost World) and his valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe, Antitrust, The Way of the Gun). Weissman came along to do some research on his new film, about a murder that occurs on an estate like Gosford. His scenario becomes real when one of the people dies at the hand of an unknown assailant. A bumbling Inspector (Stephen Fry, Londinium, Relative Values) arrives to investigate.

While the rich idle upstairs, the servants toil away downstairs, led by the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates, The Prince and the Pauper, Arabian Nights) and head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren, The Pledge, Greenfingers). They gossip away and keep the house running, yet the people upstairs fail to acknowledge them and give them their due. Their masters treat them like pets, or worse, sexual playthings, when in actuality, people like Elsie (Emily Watson, The Luhzin Defence, Trixie) and Robert Parks (Clive Owen, Greenfingers, Croupier) are smarter than the people they work for. It is a deft mocking of the relationship between servants and their masters, with fantastic performances all around. Smith is by far the best in an outstanding cast, as a spoiled old woman. She is devilishly funny as Constance, who will always speak her mind. Other standout performances upstairs include Thomas and Gambon, while Macdonald, Mirren and Owen give the strongest performances downstairs.

At times, it seems that Altman has no concern for the murderer. He just wants to have the audience watch his characters interact. There are over thirty speaking parts, and there are frequently multiple conversations occurring simultaneously. There are plenty of plot threads happening, and it takes a while to figure out exactly who is who and how everybody is related. Part of the fun is the dizzying feeling of confusion that washes upon one during the movie, as he shifts from one group of people to another. The murder does not occur until far into the film, written by Julian Fellowes (The Little Lord Fauntleroy) based on an idea by Altman and Balaban. Most importantly, Gosford Park, unlike some recent Altman efforts, is funny.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good
2 hours, 17 minutes, Rated R for some language and brief sexuality.

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