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With: Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Philippe, Maggie Smith, Kirsten Scott Thomas, Emily Watson
Written by: Julian Fellowes, based on an idea by Robert Altman, Bob Balaban
Directed by: Robert Altman
MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 138
Date: 07/11/2001
IMDB

Gosford Park (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Upstairs/Downstairs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first look at the cast list for Robert Altman's new film Gosford Park may make your head spin. It looks like every single prestigious British actor who can stand upright made a play for one of these choice parts.

But that also makes Gosford Park seem like a Merchant-Ivory costume epic with a lot of people in fancy costumes sitting around big, heavily-decorated rooms talking in studied British voices and hoping someone cares long enough for someone to win a few Oscars. It's not.

Indeed, we must remember that Altman is the master genre-ripper. He's made mincemeat out of most other movie genres since day one: the musical (Popeye), the detective film (The Long Goodbye), the war film (M*A*S*H), the western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), the sci-fi film (Quintet) as well as skewering politics with his cable-TV series Tanner '88 and Hollywood with The Player.

Altman's master touch in Gosford Park is to include the American actor Bob Balaban (who concocted the story with Altman), as an American movie producer who cranks out Charlie Chan mysteries. The stuffy Brits in the film look down their noses at him in disdain, and the great Maggie Smith actually tells him, "you may as well tell us how it ends -- none of us are going see your movie."

Of course, a real murder occurs in this country mansion (circa the 1920s) and a bumbling detective (Stephen Fry) arrives on the scene to try and solve it. But in true Altman style, it doesn't really matter who the murderer is as much as it does watching the characters react to the fact that someone was murdered.

Echoing Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, Gosford Park concerns a weekend shooting party for the elite. Altman's camera travels between the upstairs, where the rich amuse themselves, to the downstairs, where the servants go about their work. Among the upper class: Ms. Smith, Charles Dance, Michael Gambon, Jeremy Northam, Kristin Scott Thomas, and an American, Ryan Phillippe. The lower class includes: Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen and Emily Watson. Young Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting) plays the key role of Maggie Smith's maid.

As we would expect, Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes provide plenty of friction between upstairs and downstairs, from furiously executed affairs on the kitchen counter, to backstabbing, to hate-mongering. In one scene, Northam (playing a movie star) plays the piano to the disgust of the rich and to the delight of the servants, who listen in corridors, through cracks in the wall and perched on staircase landings.

Despite its skewed point of view, Gosford Park never stops surprising and entertaining. It's lovely to see that Altman, now in his 70s, still has an acid bite that would sting filmmakers half his age. This is Altman's best film since Short Cuts.

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