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Country
USA
Language
English

Gosford Park

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Julian Fellowes

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Starring Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas

Classification: AA

Rating: ***

Don't ever count Robert Altman out. The defining achievements in his canon may still be back in the seventies, when he directed a succession of movies -- MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, Nashville -- that reinvigorated and reshaped American cinema. But the man hasn't exactly been idle since.

Through ups and downs, on canvases large and small, Altman has continued to work straight into his own 70s, and always with artistic purpose. Some of these films are good ( The Player, Short Cuts), some are mere trifles ( The Gingerbread Man, Cookie's Fortune). Yet there's not one that doesn't have at least a moment -- a graceful movement of the camera, an intriguing stutter in the dialogue -- that reflects his unique gifts, that is vintage Altman.

Happily for unabashed fans like me, Gosford Park enjoys many such moments. Altman has always been adroit at giving tired genres an innovative twist (the war movie in MASH, the western in McCabe, the detective noir in The Long Goodbye), and he's up to his old tricks again, although in (for him) a brand-new arena.

Here, the time is 1932, the place a country estate in England, and the toyed-with genres are the upstairs/downstairs drama along with the Agatha Christie murder mystery. Consequently, he gets to employ a vast ensemble cast, studded with major British talents, all gathered together in a period setting under a single roof.

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Typically, Altman wastes no time on easy exposition; rather, he forces us to watch and listen closely, picking up dropped hints about the interconnections among the many characters. We're quick to deduce the essential premise: A bunch of blue bloods is assembling for a weekend visit to the Gosford Park manor of the aging Sir William (Michael Gambon) and Lady Lydia, his younger and disdainful wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). Among the incoming guests are the ultrasnooty Aunt Constance (Maggie Smith in marvellous comic form) plus a quorum of her titled nieces, their husbands and assorted hangers-on.

Settling in above stairs, the toffs are the picture of ease and languor. Below stairs, however, it's a different scene. To support these creatures in their comforts, an army of servants perpetually scurries about, with Jennings the butler (Alan Bates) and Mrs. Wilson the housekeeper (Helen Mirren) in charge of the complex operation. Beneath them (since even the low echelon has its hierarchy), there's a wide variety of minions and subminions (played by such luminaries as Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, Emily Watson and Richard E. Grant). Moreover, their ranks are further swelled by the fact that the visiting dignitaries cart along their personal maids and valets, like the naive Mary (Kelly Macdonald) and the taciturn Robert (Clive Owen).

Yes, given this human array, there are times when you can't tell the players without a program. Altman enhances the clutter by shooting in his trademark style, with overlapping dialogue and a restlessly observant camera -- looking at the social rituals and the codified manners, giving the film an almost documentary feel.

But be patient, because there's an emerging order in the chaos, a pattern of behaviour that seems to unite the two worlds. Hidden agendas, simmering resentments and guarded secrets dominate in both places. Master or servant, people aren't quite what they seem -- they dissemble, for good and for ill.

Of course, what is dissembling but a form of acting? The script underlines this notion by including among the guests not only a fictitious Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban) but also a real-life performer from that era -- Ivor Novello, a celebrated actor and composer (played by Jeremy Northam).

The aristocrats treat the low-born thespian with a studied politeness that borders on indifference -- in fact, they literally make him sing for his supper. But when he does, the servants, who all know him from the movies, furtively gather to peek at his famed profile and to marvel at his dulcet tones. They see what their betters cannot -- a future where celebrity is its own currency. There's another irony too. Among this band of deceivers, the professional actor -- the arch-deceiver -- turns out to be the most honest and self-aware of the lot. So Altman neatly establishes his theme: The forgeries of art can speak truths that the forgeries of life are designed to hide.

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Obviously, that theme has its simplest expression in the murder-mystery genre, where the murder usually lies at the centre of the tale, and the mystery eventually comes with a neat solution -- the truth revealed. Yet Altman is having none of that, choosing instead to treat the murder as peripheral, almost a narrative afterthought. Sure, we find out whodunit, but Altman isn't really interested in neat solutions -- only in messy lives.

By bending popular genres out of their familiar shape, Altman has repeatedly run the risk of alienating his audience. But not here, I think. He's still capable of commanding the best casts in the business -- actors love to work with him -- and this stellar group serves us awfully well. Also, despite its little twists and departures from the norm, Gosford Park is basically a crowd-pleaser, a slight film with a fat ensemble all keen to entertain. So don't be afraid of the idiosyncrasies. It's just Altman singing for his supper -- and in damn good voice after all these years.

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