Let us now praise Robert Altman, and let us offer thanks that the coldblooded codger is still cranking out film after film into his 77th year. His output may have been been hit or miss these last few years – the last thing he had resembling a hit was “The Player” in 1992, and he hasn’t even found much critical favor since 1993’s “Short Cuts” – but it just won’t do to take Altman for granted. We have an authentic Old Master working in our midst, and “Gosford Park” will at the very least remind everyone how masterful a helmsman he can be.
Written by Julain Fellowes from an idea by Altman and actor Bob Balaban, “Gosford Park” blends “The Rules of the Game,” “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Ten Little Indians” into a rich feast that will have adult filmgoers licking their chops. Think of it as Bob Altman’s Christmas gift to us grownups.
Set in 1932, the film takes us inside a mansion in the English countryside for a shooting party held by Sir William McCordle (Michæl Gambon). Sir William is quite the randy old goat and none too well liked by his guests. Even less charmed is his ice-queen of a wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Almost everyone in the house has an ax to grind with Sir William, from Head Housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson), who may or may not be having a fling with him, to the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), whose allowance from Sir William may or may not be in danger of being cut off.
So it’s not much of a surprise when Sir William is found murdered not once, but twice (see the film to understand how). No one with a brain – and anyone who bothers to see an Altman film is certainly in posession of one – will be too tasked trying to figure out the mystery. But, as Altman would be the first to admit, the whodunit aspect of “Gosford Park” is merely a hook to lure us into his mordant exploration of class in British society.
The fascination here is in learning how a viper’s nest such as Gosford Park actually works, the nuts and bolts of running such a vast estate. Altman is the ideal guide, plunging us into the heart of the chaos downstairs, where the power games are no less intensely played than in the drawing room above.
Tellingly, scenes among the invited guests are only played while there is a servant around to observe it. Given that most of the time the masters act as if the servants aren’t there at all, much significant information is overheard, then picked over like scraps from the grand dining room table.
As you may have heard, Altman has assembled the cream of British film talent – Eilenn Atkins, Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen and James Wilby, among others – to enact these rituals before his roving cameras. In such a stellar assemblage, it’s not an easy task to single out one or two performers. Still, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Kelly McDonald and the inimitable Maggie Smith (no one aims precise little darts of centempt like her) do make the strongest impressions. Among other things, these wonderful women give performances that belie Altman’s reputation as a misogynist. Actors will famously do anything for Altman, and he’s often said his films merely provide a framework in which they can work their magic with maximum freedom; even in these corseted environs, they are given free rein to improvise. There isn’t a false note hit for the entire running time.
It’s astonishing that not only can Altman still direct at his age, but that he can orchestrate with such fluidity, such seeming effortlessness. Perhaps “mæstro” is a more fitting word for him. The man’s movies are busy – they always have been, sometimes to their detriment, as in “Ready to Wear.” But his style of gracefully interweaving image and sound is like no other. If you’re not always sure who’s who in the “Gosford Park” crowd, you’re never confused – somehow Altman ensures that everyone under the mansion’s roof has his or her moment. This is what forty years of directing experience brings to the table.
If “Gosford Park” is finally somewhat less pitiless than his past group portraits, well, that’s what old age will do to a man. He may have softened up a bit, but Altman still has his edge, and it’s a sharp one.