Rated R - Running Time: 2:17 - Released 12/26/01

A brilliantly executed and densely populated British period mystery, Gosford Park is as close to a Merchant/Ivory film as you can get without Merchant or Ivory. Although set in London with a nearly all-British cast, it is the product of American filmmakers Robert Altman and Bob Balaban, who enlisted the help of British actor Julian Fellowes to help with the screenplay. And that is appropriate, as its story involves an American producer (played by Balaban) who travels to London to get a feel for the society, so that he may use it to flavor his next movie. Directed by Altman (MASH, Cookie's Fortune), it takes place during a weekend party at a British country home during the early 1930s, with a numerous cast of talented actors, a sumptuous and richly detailed setting, and an anonymous murder thrown in for good measure.

As the film begins, we meet the hosts of the party, Sir William and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas), whose sprawling estate contains many more rooms than people and many more servants than guests, especially since most of the guests brought their own servants. Besides the aforementioned American, Morris Weissman (Balaban), producer of the popular Charlie Chan movies, and his valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), there are family members, like the elderly and insufferably spoiled Constance (a delightful Maggie Smith), a countess who must deal with the trials of breaking in her inexperienced new Scottish maid, the young and innocent Mary Macreachran (Kelly Macdonald); friends and dignitaries, like Lord and Lady Raymond and Louisa Stockbridge (Charles Dance, Geraldine Somerville) and Lieutenant Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander) and Lady Lavinia Meredith (Natasha Wightman); and at least one celebrity, American actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who just finished the 1932 "talkie" remake of his previous silent film The Lodger (both of which actually did star the real Novello). While the idea of the get-together is obstensibly a pheasant hunt, the primary activities among the guests are eating, drinking, and trading high-society gossip.

Below stairs, the McCordles' butler, Jennings (Alan Bates), and housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), must oversee and choreograph the movements of the incoming servants with that of their own regular staff, like Mrs. Croft, the cook (Eileen Atkins), Elsie, the head housemaid (Emily Watson), Probert, Sir William's valet (Derek Jacobi), Lewis, Lady Sylvia's maid (Meg Wynn Owen), and numerous others. (Even with this voluminous list of names, I have only covered maybe half of the film's speaking parts.) Besides trying not to bump into each other in the hallways, this army of servants engage in their own information trading regarding their employers, and through this we learn the complexity of their relationships and of their lives, despite the oblivious nature of the folks upstairs toward this subject.

After a good deal of time is spent introducing these many characters and engaging in relatively plotless dialogue, the film's moment of conflict arrives when one of the partiers is murdered, just like in Mr. Wiseman's upcoming Chan mystery. Naturally, there are numerous possiblities for a suspect, since the victim was hardly liked by any of the above, including his spouse. In fact, he seems to have been re-murdered by someone else after he was already dead from the first attempt. This ugly development prompts the arrival of Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry), the classic boor of a detective with whom few of the guests readily cooperate, and his meek but well-meaning assistant, Constable Dexter (Ron Webster). Their combined act of investigation resides just this side of Monty Python.

In spite of its many humorous aspects, this story is finally a rather tragic one, providing not only a bittersweet story involving some of the servants, but also an intruguing commentary on the separation of the classes that will bring back memories of The Remains Of The Day. Its set and costume design will no doubt be remembered at Oscar time, as will probably some of its actors' performances (Altman in fact already won a Golden Globe for his efforts, and Mirren, Smith, and Fellowes were all justifiably nominated). Although its opening expository period drags on for quite a while, contributing to its overlong running time, before the actual plot kicks in, it is overall a delightful experience. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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