To the Manor Born

After some 30-odd years and almost as many features, Robert Altman finally gets around to fashioning a loving repro of his Rosetta stone with Gosford Park. The panoramic combination of ensemble choreography and camera glissandos is frequently termed Altman-esque, but the director's own idée fixe (and ego ideal) has always been that unconquerable humanist monument, Jean Renoir's 1939 Rules of the Game. Altman's most enjoyable film in at least a decade (and his first British production), Gosford Park stages a country-house gathering in 1932 England and, though scarcely a rewriting of the Rules, borrows enough motifs and arbitrary details to qualify as homage: a nippy November setting, guests braving a downpour, a protracted shooting-party massacre, a celebrity presence, rampant infidelity, after-dinner entertainment interrupted by violence.

As with Altman's best movies, Gosford Park is above all an entrancing hum of atmosphere and texture. The impeccable sets and production design (by the director's son Stephen) convey a disorienting, almost Escher-like labyrinth of hierarchies within hierarchies. The ornately cluttered chambers upstairs and the dim, spartan servants' quarters below are connected by endless corridors and stairways that Andrew Dunn's widescreen camera prowls with the stealth of a wildcat. To populate this sprawling manse, Altman has summoned a multi-generational horde of Anglo luminaries—just about every toff and titled thesp who wasn't busy with Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings (and some who were). It takes a second viewing to fully apprehend the various pecking orders and floor plans.

The weekend hosts are the nouveau riche Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his icily contemptuous wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Most of the guests are relations of Sylvia's: sisters, in-laws, and her aunt Constance (Maggie Smith), a cawing biddy imperiously spitting poisoned darts of bored malice. The real-life singer and matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), a friend of William's, has brought with him—for outsider perspective and broad comic support—a vulgar Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban). The subterranean work force, swelled by the guests' hired help, is overseen by Alan Bates's timorous butler and Helen Mirren's stern housekeeper; key players include the brusque head cook (Eileen Atkins), the worldly first maid (Emily Watson), a reclusive valet (Clive Owen), and Constance's wide-eyed new maid (Kelly MacDonald). In a crucial structuring device, scenes involving the upper classes play out with at least one servant lingering in the background, or begin in private only to be disrupted by a discreet rap on the door. A roving, eavesdropping camera is an Altman trademark, but in Gosford Park, overheard talk—in the form of below-stairs gossip—is literally what fuels the narrative engine.

Robert Altman and the chamber of secrets
photo: Mark Tillie
Robert Altman and the chamber of secrets

Details

Gosford Park
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Julian Fellowes
USA

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Scripted by first-time writer Julian Fellowes (from an idea by Altman and Bob Balaban), Gosford Park amounts to a stick-figure flowchart next to Rules of the Game—but then what doesn't? Renoir's maxim that "everyone has their reasons" finds a pedestrian counterpart here in a pronouncement by Bates's butler: "We all have something to hide." Gosford Park unfolds to the clatter of skeletons tumbling out of closets, though most of the bombshells are telegraphed so far in advance that cushy landings are all but assured. Aware perhaps that the crushing sadness and reverberating wisdom of the ür-text are out of reach, Altman inches his film toward the hardly sacred British tradition of the Agatha Christie whodunit. But everything about the film's anticlimactic homicide—its snarky execution, the gleamingly conspicuous bottles of poison and sharp cutlery that precede it, the subsequent arrival of blunderbuss detective Stephen Fry, the fact that Balaban's character is prepping a Charlie Chan murder mystery—shows just how seriously he's taking this game of Clue.

Still, the alien environs seem to have done Altman a world of good. His recent expeditions into regional subcultures were punctuated by snorts of derision; here the upstairs/downstairs model provides a coherent framework for what has elsewhere registered as free-floating disdain. Fellowes's script doesn't offer a particularly trenchant analysis of class warfare and tends to italicize already salient points, but it does gently illuminate the casual savagery of the aristocratic snobs, and the unyielding mind-sets on both sides that ensure the self-sustenance of this microcosm.

The size of the cast effectively reduces many of the actors to glorified extras for significant periods of time, but there aren't many directors besides Altman who can give a performer so little to do and get so much in return. Richard E. Grant's petulant eye-rolling (as a prissy footman) and Scott Thomas's coquettish chill are spot on, if less extensively showcased than Smith's curdled scorn and Mirren's starched fragility. There's no mistaking Altman for a magnanimous filmmaker, but Gosford Park does contain a glimpse of the romantic yearning that coursed through his finest early work. Late one evening, Novello graciously takes to the piano to entertain the overfed guests, most of whom can barely be bothered to stifle their yawns ("Lovely long repertoire," Constance snips from behind a hand of bridge). A group of servants gather in the shadows of the surrounding rooms, listening in dreamy awe, and in a moment of exquisite pathos, two of them—enraptured by Northam's fluttery tenor and the lush sentimentality of the Novello melody—break into a spontaneous jig.

 
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