In this Robert Altman upstairs/downstairs drama the fun of the opening is identifying which cream-of-the-crop British actors are playing the roles, which Americans, and who tops whom. For an industry audience it's fair to say Maggie Smith takes it away, but then she's got some of the more delicious lines. But, that's not to say other players don't rise to the top when the drama or irony requires.
Always a director for an ensemble cast, Altman here gives it new meaning in sheer numbers as he weaves his familiar web of stories. This time, the occasion is a hunting weekend at Gosford Park, a palatial English manor with extensive grounds, accomodations for a very large assemblage of the English elite and with downstairs quarters for all the servants, cooks, drivers and valets necessary for the comfort of those above.
The setting provides ample opportunity for intrigue, gossip, sexual pairings, blackmail, lust, moral weakness and the inevitable murder. It could be an Agatha Christie tale, though its police investigator, Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) is off the charts for bumbling. In fact, he's not the only stereotype in the bunch but is clearly the most extreme of them. And, perhaps, the point of it all, if not the fun, is in the stereotyping. At least Altman seems to have thought so and his cast superbly fleshed it out in magnificent costumery while relishing their sumptuous meals and slashing snobbery.
It's 1932 and lord of the manor, Sir William McCordle (spot on Michael Gambon), a subtly domineering type with a past so unscrupulous it borders on evil, has invited some of his social peers, as well as a few Americans for color, for a weekend of hunting birds as well as all the social enjoyments such a gathering promotes. His much younger and incredibly more handsome wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas at her period classiest) is behind the enterprise as well.
As the picture opens on a typically rainy day on the English countryside, Constance, Countess of Thentham, (Maggie Smith, typically inimitable) leaves her own manor and mounts her private carriage with her personal servant. Scarcely has there been a better representation of an English countryside morning than this, so patiently depicted and superbly photographed.
The Americans, who pull alongside the countess on the way, are Morris Weissman, Esq (Bob Balaban), a Hollywood producer of Charlie Chan mysteries, and Ryan Phillippe about whom we can say nothing except that when an actor plays an actor playing a part... well, he's a study in pretend modesty alternating with utter self confidence in womanizing. Accompanying them is the English matinee idol, Ivor Novello, Esq. (Jeremy Northam) who can also sing and play piano and who will earn his invitation.
Add to this an ever more exquisite Emily Watson as the efficient head housemaid Elsie, Derek Jacobi as Sir William's Valet Probert, Alan Bates as butler Jennings, Helen Mirren who seems to be the overboss of the downstairs workers Mrs. Wilson, Clive Owen who proves again, even in these overcrowded circumstances, the value of charismatic weight. Somehow, when he's on screen he imparts an air of impending drama even when things are going routinely.
So weighty a cast list could threaten the vitality of a drama but with the pen of Julian Fellowes and Altman's taste for the mob, this one maintains animation along with the animosities. The pacing and clarity are worthy of a director who has become something of an icon in American filmmaking. His tackling of a fully staffed English whodunit (based on an idea by him and Bob Balaban) proves a challenge that falls within his considerable capabilities, resulting in his best film since "The Player" and one that will take a respected place on his filmography, discounting the recent failures of "Kansas City" and "Pret-a-Porter".
There's a lot said about the social classes in this place where the Haves and Have-Nots are in such close and common contact. Barriers are ignored when sex is the object, for one. Then there's the line from the valet who remarks that his master thinks he's God Almighty and a cook with requisite experience responds as though she's speaking for a cross section of the lower classes, "They all do".
As with any meeting of elites, this one includes a few captains of industry, not the least of which is the host, who not surprisingly holds the fate of Lieut. Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander) in his hands and cares little about it. Meredith's pleadings for rescue from imminent bankruptcy proves to be a principal plot line and provides one possible motive, among others, for the murder that occurs. The revelation of other motives leads us into a dark and tragic past.
It's all a lot to tackle and may be worthy of more than one viewing to get it all straight. But it's there, along with a fastidious authenticity for the manners, mores and styles of the time. Production designer Stephen Altman, Robert's son, creates the magnificence of the manor by combining two country homes and constructing a set for servants quarters below that accomodates frantically moving staff through its many rooms and corridors.
It's all convincingly photographed by cinematographer Andrew Dunn ("Practical Magic", "Liam") as he captures the inescapable grey moods of England outdoors and the bright and shadowy variations inside. Flawless period costumes are outstandingly wrought for the classes and the occasions by Jenny Beavan.
The film runs 137 minutes but you, surprisingly, don't hear me complaining.
Estimated cost: $15,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $25,000,000.