Director Altman, British cast at top of game
Review: 'Gosford Park' a winning mystery
By Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- Scathingly funny and deliciously wicked, "Gosford Park" is without a doubt Robert Altman's best film in more than a decade. In fact, it's one of the best films of 2001.
During his 40-year career, Altman has become known for his huge ensemble casts, multiple plot lines, and overlapping dialogue. He has also developed a reputation for being a maverick working outside the Hollywood system.
He swept to international fame in the 1970s with films such as "M*A*S*H" (1970), "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971) and "Nashville" (1975). But with the possible exception of 1993's "Short Cuts," his recent films haven't achieved anywhere near the public acceptance or critical glory showered upon him in his early days.
"Gosford Park" should change that trend -- it's already made many top 10 lists, and is on the short list for a number of awards.
Set in 1932 at an English estate, Gosford Park, the film is a delightful mixture of the BBC TV series "Upstairs, Downstairs" and the murder mystery board game Clue. The film opens with the whirlwind arrival of a number of British aristocrats, and their various servants, arriving for a weekend visit.
A motley class structure
Michael Gambon plays Sir William McCordle, owner of Gosford Park, and Kristin Scott Thomas plays his wife, Lady Sylvia McCordle. Lady Sylvia is from an old but impoverished family and her sisters Lady Louisa Stockbridge (Geraldine Somerville) and Lady Lavina Meredith (Natasha Wightman) -- and their deadbeat husbands -- depend on Sir William's largesse to survive. But her most impoverished -- and arrogant -- relative is her aunt Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith).
Other guests include Cary Grant-like Hollywood star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who's Sir William's cousin, and his friend, Hollywood producer Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban, who also co-wrote the script with Altman). There's a clearly defined pecking order among the guests.
But it's below the stairs where the pecking order is most apparent, and the characters there really drive the story.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), is the keeper of dark secrets, and the running of the estate revolves around her. The head housemaid, Elsie (Emily Watson), is leading a double life, and when she is exposed, it leads to the murder which turns the household upside down.
Among the other characters affected: a valet, Robert Parks (Clive Owen); the first footman, George (Richard E. Grant); Constance's maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald); and Mr. Weisman's valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe).
Fine acting, excellent script
"Gosford Park" is ultimately a highly nuanced social commentary regarding the upper class and a sharp observation of the servant class, all circa the early 1930s in Great Britain. The labyrinthine relationships between the servants and the upper crust involving sexual infidelities, blackmail, out-of-wedlock children, murder and mayhem are knitted together brilliantly into a wonderfully textured tapestry.
With the exception of Balaban and Phillippe, the entire cast is quintessentially British, and each seems born for his or her role. Smith is especially splendid as the snobby Countess, who can't see beyond her haughty, aristocratic nose.
Thomas is exquisite as the lady of the house trapped in her social ambitions. And Mirren is the glue that holds the story together. Her splendid performance is picture-perfect. Watson is equally good as the housemaid whose observations are razor-sharp and delivered with both acid and cream.
In a departure from some of his recent efforts, Altman here has created characters that live and breathe and take emotional journeys, both interesting and compelling. Andrew Dunn's cinematography is lush and rich; the camera glides up and down the stairs of the grand estate, the period look is beautifully crafted.
"Gosford Park" is ensemble acting at its very best. This is one of those rare movies that's worth seeing more than once. Altman is once again back in top form.
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