Gosford Park (15)
Robert Altman’s latest sees him turning his eye on that peculiar period between the wars when the English upper classes were on the wane and life was beginning to alter as a new conflict drew near.
Yet while the world changes around them a narrow strata of English society continues to cling to a dying way of life, relying on servants to perform menial tasks and bathing in the glow of a sunset that will fade forever within the space of a decade.
Part period drama, part murder mystery, Gosford Park puts a collection of lords and masters under the spotlight as the great and good arrive at a rural estate for a weekend of shooting.
Above stairs Sir William McCordle (Sir Michael Gambon), his frustrated wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) and an assortment of family, friends and other guests enjoy a selection of fine food at Sir William’s expense.
Among them are the grasping Countess of Trentham (Dame Maggie Smith), who relies on William’s patronage to keep her in the life she was born into; Hollywood film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban); jobless Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) and movie star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam).
Below stairs are the servants, led by butler Jennings (Alan Bates); rigid housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren); housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson) who is having a secret affair with Lord McCordle, and lascivious footman George (Richard E. Grant).
The proximity of such a disparate bunch of have-alls and have-nots provides Altman and writer Julian Fellowes with a rare opportunity to lift the lid on the shenanigans of two separate classes, revealing their foibles, inadequacies, closet skeletons and scandals like bacteria swarming under a microscope.
A deliberate amalgam of Murder by Death crossed with The Shooting Party, it gives a stellar cast – 18 marquee names in the leads, in support or cameos – the opportunity to have immense fun with manners and affectation while, at the same time, delivering a riveting domestic drama.
Within any ensemble of this type there are bound to be winners and losers. Winners include Watson, Mirren, Northam and Kelly MacDonald as Maggie Smith’s maid and confidante, while the losers, in small roles with little to offer, include Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates and Stephen Fry, the latter upsetting the rhythm of the piece as a bumbling detective.
By far the best performance comes from the parasitical Maggie Smith, delivering acid-soaked lines with relish and deadpan grace, while Clive Owen also stands out as a cold, reptilian valet.
Skilfully delivered (one would expect nothing less from Altman) and deliciously tongue-in-cheek, Gosford Park manages to extract every ounce of mood, malice and misanthropy from a bunch of people it is impossible to warm to. The final twist, following a murder, can be seen coming, but the journey to it – lots of mutterings, sideways glances, hidden secrets and gossip – is compelling and seductive.
And while the plot is occasionally propped up by clichés – Lady Sylvia is screwing the servants; the butler harbours a secret shame; the antipathy between Mrs Wilson and Mrs Croft, the cook, points to a previous relationship – Gosford Park succeeds in being a great deal more than just a pale imitation of an Agatha Christie potboiler.
It is telling that Altman has managed to attract such luminaries to fill out his cast, and that Kelly MacDonald, the female star of Trainspotting, gets the lion’s share of the action.
Meaty, funny, sordid and immensely bright, Gosford Park is the kind of movie the Merchant Ivory stable should be making. One thing’s for sure: it has more humour.