A Master on Masters and Slaves

Here's a novel concept: Agatha Christie by Robert Altman. The delicious Gosford Park, set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, is a murder mystery and then some. The movie is also a sly meditation on England vs. America and Upstairs vs. Downstairs in an era about to fall down and die of inertia. It's about the pleasures of good linen and the idiocy of hunting. It's about how guilty secrets and terrible losses can mutilate a life. It is a savagely funny satire and a wonderfully tender drama from a director who, in the past decade, had seemed to be running from his best self into cheap cynicism.

Still, Gosford Park is vintage Altman. The murder doesn't take place till fully halfway through the movie, which leaves time for Altman to do what no other director, save perhaps Renoir, knows how to do better, which is to elaborate a world so richly busy with itself it barely notices you. At his best, Altman turns us into interlopers who have stumbled into a world that seems to predate us and persuades us it will continue to teem with life long after we leave the theater. The movie's giant cast is so seamlessly fabulous you could weep, studded as it is with current and has-been stars (including a sprinkling of Sirs and Dames) who are willing to abandon center stage for the pleasure of working with a director who loves actors.

If anything, it's a coup to land a lowly part in Gosford Park, for that's where the movie's sympathies lie. The idiot gentility of the masters, their backbiting hypocrisy and petty standing on ceremony, are observed through the eyes of the servants—some devoted, others scornful, still others clear-eyed and tolerant. The interdependence between the layers of this rigorously divided society is more complex than it seems, as quickly becomes clear when we learn that everyone above and below stairs is beholden to or has a score to settle with the estate's owner, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), whose bitch of a wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas at her freezing best), is every bit as randy and ruthless as he. In one way or another, Sir William also supports the whole army of do-nothing hangers-on, including his wife's gossipy, self-absorbed maiden aunt (Maggie Smith), who have gathered under his roof for a shooting party.

This unappetizing crew is observed with a mixture of amazement and ill-disguised distaste by Morris Weissman (played by Bob Balaban, who cooked up the idea for the movie with Altman), a Hollywood movie producer who accompanies the fading English screen idol and singer Ivor Novello (the congenitally suave Jeremy Northam) and who happens to be researching his latest mystery movie, Charlie Chan in London. Below stairs, another ice queen reigns: Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), a termagent with no discernible emotional life, presides with stiff-necked Jennings the butler (Alan Bates) over both her own staff and the visitors' entourage, which includes a mysterious valet played by Clive Owen and another (Ryan Phillippe in a not-half-bad Glasgow accent) who's nowhere near as mysterious as he thinks he is.

In a less generous mood—say, the one that produced Short Cuts—Altman, who loves to take a genre and bend it to other purposes, might have been tempted to play Gosford Park as vicious social satire or Pythonesque spoof of costume drama. If Altman is poking fun at the country-house mystery genre—the detective who shows up after the deed is done is a bumblingly inept Poirot knockoff played by Stephen Fry—he's also embracing and enjoying it, craftily planting motives like a pro. Though scathingly funny where it needs to be, Julian Fellowes' deft screenplay achieves a wry wistfulness as it moves downstairs, where the murder sets off another drama altogether.

In a movie with not a single bad performance to its name, Emily Watson towers over the ensemble as the head housemaid, Elsie, a quiet young woman with a shrewder appreciation for the vagaries of human nature than any of her betters can muster. Fired for blurting out an unwelcome truth at dinner, Elsie watches as Gosford Park, and the anachronistic world it represents—a world so cruelly self-regarding that servants are required to take their masters' last names and, worse, like it—crumbles. As she steps into a car with Morris Weissman, who leaves the estate with a readymade plot for his new movie, she's also the shape (in more ways than one) of things to come.

Gosford Park was directed by Robert Altman; written by Julian Fellowes; produced by Altman, Bob Balaban and David Levy; and stars Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and Emily Watson. Now playing countywide.

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