Going Back to Modern Times
An American master's kaleidoscopic drama has lots of class.

With Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Ryan Phillippe, Clive Owen, Alan Bates, Bob Balaban, Jeremy Northam
Screenplay by Julian Fellowes
From an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban
Directed by Robert Altman

BEFORE YOU SEE Gosford Park, the new film by the American cinema’s reigning Old Master, you have to understand that the days of vintage Robert Altman ended nearly 25 years ago and only really began in 1970, when Altman was 45. From the breakthrough M*A*S*H and the masterly Nashville, his multi-layered, socially conscious ensemble dramas, came A Wedding and Health, pale imitations of the kaleidoscopic form he pioneered. From 3 Women and Images, his trippy metaphysical psychodramas, came a few slight albeit dexterous adaptations of intellectual, off-Broadway Grand Guignol.

But even if we’ll never again see an original Altman, a movie like Gosford Park reminds us of why we keep watching. It’s a patient, confident, instinctive drama that delivers something rare in movies today: an emotionally rich payoff you don’t see coming. And it stars three generations of the best actors in the whole of England, with a few Americans on hand for "exotic" flavor, all of them directed to lean, appealing performances with none of the improvisational ticks of the usual Altman panoply.

Set in 1932, at an eponymous English country estate, Gosford Park is ultimately an Upstairs, Downstairs> murder mystery, although Altman and his screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, don’t turn up a dead body until the last 45 minutes. When someone finally gets done in, the list of suspects seems at first to be precariously short. But soon half the household could be the killer, and just when you think the party might end without a solution - thanks to a sycophant inspector (Stephen Fry) too fond of the nobles to bother with evidence - Gosford Park delivers its heartbreaking denouement.

The prickly patriarch marked for murder at Gosford Park is the manor’s moneyed owner, Sir William McCordle (the ever-licentious Michael Gambon), who dotes on his Scottie named Pip and treats everyone else like a dog. His wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), doesn’t much care that he takes lovers because she does, too. Sylvia’s Aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) lives to consume her relative’s chow and hospitality, while various other genteel guests (Charles Dance and James Wilby among them) harbor secrets and contempts of their own toward their jowly, disagreeable host, who has invited them all to his manse for a pleasant weekend pheasant shoot.

Meanwhile, beneath the stairs, the servants know where all the bodies are buried. Jennings (Alan Bates), the head butler, spent time in jail during the war as a conscientious objector. The chief housekeeper (a divine Helen Mirren) wears her hair in relaxed curls that cling to the side of her fretful head. She has a bitter rivalry with the cook and little use for the rest of the staff: the valet (Derek Jacobi), the footman (Richard E. Grant, snotty and prissy), the head housemaid (Emily Watson, unusually mellow), and Robert (Clive Owen), a visiting valet with a menacing glare.

And then, there are the exotics: a handsome Brit (Jeremy Northam) who’s become a Hollywood matinee idol; his Jewish, gay, vegetarian producer, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, the familiar character who conceived the plot of Gosford Park with Altman); and a randy young Scottish manservant (Ryan Phillippe), who’s really Weissman’s acting protégé and occasional catamite, although given the lad’s taste for the ladies, one suspects the former role accommodates the latter.

Altman doesn’t teach us anything about British class distinction that we haven’t already learned from Merchant/Ivory, Masterpiece Theater and others of that ilk. It’s how he says it that draws you in, with his absorbing gallery of interlocking characters and his sense that life goes on in a room even when the camera leaves it. His opening shot employs one of his trademarks: a zooming telephoto lens used for closeups, which lets us feel like we’re spying from a safe-cum-intimate distance.

There’s meticulous authenticity all over this film, from an exhausting sense of how much effort it takes to run a household like Gosford, to the women’s ugly fur stoles replete with heads and feet (a la mode), to a pheasant hunt where the murdered birds spiral to the ground like whirligigs. And yet it never seems as if Altman wants all of this detail to edify or impress: His movie is not an act of closeted Anglophilia that invites us to revel guiltily in a more dignified time.

Instead, his cultural critique winnows through it all, most often revealed subtly with gestures and glances, but sometimes spoken in snippets of tart or bitter dialogue. The lords and ladies grow fat on privilege ("a woman who travels with no maid has no self-respect"), while their servants - especially the women - live cautious, vicarious lives. Some of Altman’s characters are no more familiar than gentle clichés, and some are powerful archetypes that still have resonance when illuminated by the discerning light of a mature dramatist. The aristocrats let the servants see and hear their darkest secrets because they don’t consider them to be human, and the vilest of the upstairs lot even dare to - well, I shall say no more, lest I reveal the secret ending of a whodunit with much more going on than meets even the most prying eyes.