You may need a program to keep track of the two dozen-plus characters in Robert Altman's soap opera, murder mystery, chamber comedy-of-manners "Gosford Park."
Carpeted with dry wit and filled to the rafters with salacious secrets and unspoken animosity, the film takes place at an English country estate in 1932 and unfolds from two points of view -- above stairs, where a multitude of aristocrats size each other up in subtle sociological war games, and below stairs, where their gossipy maids and valets fall into a strict pecking order based upon whom they serve.
The estate is the home of the aloof upper-crusters Sir William and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott Thomas) and it's gathering place for their many coattail-riding relatives, including Aunt Constance (the wonderful, quizzically austere Maggie Smith) who habitually puts on airs as if she's not living off an allowance from the McCordles.
The story begins as guests arrive for a pheasant-hunting weekend. They include Lady Sylvia's sisters and their husbands, who are always angling for the financial favor of Sir William. Also reluctantly welcomed is Sir William's cousin Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), an American matinee idol traveling with a nouveau riche Hollywood movie producer (Bob Balaban), who is visibly uncomfortable and unpolished around all this old money.
Meanwhile, Constance's inexperienced new maid Mary (Kelly MacDonald), the producer's snooping and presumptuous valet Henry (Ryan Phillippe), and other visiting servants settle in downstairs, where a stuffy butler (Alan Bates) and domineering housekeeper (Helen Mirren) run an extremely tight ship.
Pretty but plain, apprehensive but inquisitive Mary becomes the audience's surrogate as she learns the ropes of her job and soon begins to discover some of the surreptitious goings-on of this seemingly prim household -- not the least of which is Sir William's affair with cavalier head housemaid Elsie (the always extraordinary and multifaceted Emily Watson).
Altman's talent for meticulous character juggling is put to the test in the interlaced manifold narrative of "Gosford Park," embellished as it is with backstories and/or ulterior motives. Some peripheral characters get mixed up in the constant shuffle, and because it's not readily apparent whose stories will become relevant in the long run, it might drive you a little bonkers trying to keep up with them all. In fact, the squandering of recognizable British talents like Derek Jacobi and Richard E. Grant in very minor roles is a little misleading.
But one thing is for sure: When Sir William is found dead half way through the picture, you'll remember which clingy aristocrats were denied money from him, you'll remember the producer's valet having no qualms about taking Lady Sylvia to bed, and you'll begin to wonder who else among the household staff might be William's bitterly abandoned mistresses from years past.
With the arrival of a bumbling police inspector (Stephen Fry, whose character feels awkwardly contrived) you'll also discover -- along with those on screen -- that some guests and servants are not what they seem.
Even before the murder, which is also not what it seems, there's never a dull moment in "Gosford Park," as the social politics play out both upstairs and down. The gifted but unobtrusive Macdonald ("Trainspotting," "Two Family House") makes an ideal tour guide for all this. Her intelligence and curiosity help guide the story and track names and faces, even as she becomes drawn to another visiting servant, the handsome, dark, churlish and secretive Robert (Clive Owen), valet to one of the husbands-in-law.
Conceived by Altman and Balaban, "Gosford Park" is every inch a Robert Altman movie, characterized by ironic personalities (most of the blue-bloods consider the murder little more than an inconvenience), crafty reveals (the lining of Phillippe's pants say "property of Fox Studios"...hmm...), humorously unsubtle foreshadowing (several times the camera zooms in on vials marked "poison," which seem to be everywhere) and an unexpected finale that sheds a whole new light to everything that came before it.
But what truly makes the movie an engrossing, amusing delight is Altman's way of working with his actors to develop the complexity and humanity of every character. With the exception of Fry's inept inspector, there's not a cliché to be had here, and almost any one of the multihued personalities in "Gosford Park" could have been the main character, had the story taken a different tack.
Run time: 137 mins
In Theaters: Friday 18th January 2002
Box Office USA: $41.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $87.8M
Distributed by: USA Films
Production compaines: USA Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 122 Rotten: 20
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson, Clive Owen as Robert Parks, Maggie Smith as Constance Trentham, Geraldine Somerville as Louisa Stockbridge, Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello, Kristin Scott Thomas as Sylvia McCordle, Michael Gambon as William McCordle, Kelly Macdonald as Mary Maceachran, Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Croft, Emily Watson as Elsie, Alan Bates as Jennings, Richard E. Grant as George, Ryan Phillippe as Henry Denton, Trent Ford as Jeremy Blond, Stephen Fry as Inspector Thompson, Charles Dance as Lord Raymond Stockbridge, Camilla Rutherford as Isobel McCordle, Bob Balaban as Morris Weissman, James Wilby as Freddie Nesbitt, Natasha Wightman as Lavinia Meredith, Claudie Blakley as Mabel Nesbitt, Derek Jacobi as Probert
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