As far as targets go, the British class system is like the side of a barn already covered with holes big enough to drive a John Deere tractor through. Everybody's taken their shots over time, using a variety of firearms. But I wonder if anybody has ever scattered buckshot with the laser-like precision that Robert Altman brings to his new drawing-room comedy, Gosford Park. A large-canvas portrait of a society that's seen much better days, Gosford Park is set at one of those country houses where the candelabras are lined up like frigates on a crystal-laden mahogany table, where the rugs have been unraveling for centuries and the paintings are all of horses. You could almost hear the crowd I saw it with sink into the overstuffed armchairs, waiting for the servants to wheel in the tea and crumpets.
It was quite a large crowd ' very PBS, WPR. After "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Brideshead Revisited" and the collected works of Merchant-Ivory, we've grown accustomed to luxuriating in these period interiors, but at a price. Eventually, the candles are snuffed, the plates are removed, the silver's put away, the table's taken apart, the rug's rolled up, and we're thrown out on the street, where we're closer to the butler and the maid than to the lord and lady. How we love and loathe upper-class privilege in this country! Which is one of the reasons Gosford Park is so successful. Altman, who's managed to convince half the British peerage of actors and actresses (some of them playing scullery maids) to join him in this endeavor, loves and loathes it too. One might have expected the director of Nashville and M*A*S*H to nail these Tory twits to the wall. He does, but they're the ones holding the hammer.
"Everyone has his reasons," Jean Renoir famously said in Rules of the Game, which Gosford Park is almost too indebted to ' same weekend gathering, the guests and servants pairing off in unexpected ways, similar hunting party, although this time there's no case of mistaken identity when the hunter becomes the hunted. And what's great about Gosford Park is that, like Rules of the Game, it offers a dense, complex vision of life. There's no central character. Instead, everyone's a central character, from Michael Gambon's Sir William McCordle, an industrialist who bought Gosford Park rather than inherited it, to Kelly Macdonald's Mary Maceachran, who's new to service and is trying to learn the ropes without hanging herself with them. What could be more anti-monarchical than a large cast that shares top billing?
The movie takes place in 1932, with the British Empire still reeling from one world war while the next is taking shape on the horizon. What this means, for those who while away the evenings playing bridge at Gosford Park, is that it's very hard to find good help these days. The class system is breaking down, and the servants ' some of them, anyway ' are getting restless. Not Mary, whose employer, the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith, flicking her tongue like an iguana), knew a sucker when she saw one. In the movie's opening scene, Mary has to stand in the rain while the countess, under an umbrella, slowly makes her way to the car. Later, when the old bag has trouble working her thermos, the car is stopped so that Mary can walk all the way around, take the thermos from her and gently pop the top open.
Such petty cruelties are Gosford Park's bread and butter, and it's not always the upstairs lording it over the downstairs. Each group is both painfully and pleasurably aware of the pecking order within its own ranks, which means that every single encounter is rife with power politics. Below stairs, Helen Mirren's Mrs. Wilson, who last smiled during the Victorian era, is in charge, along with Alan Bates' tight-lipped Jennings, the butler. Above stairs, Kristin Scott Thomas' Lady Sylvia McCordle presides over Gosford Park with a combination of boredom, anger and snobbery. She obviously doesn't love her husband. Nor does he love her, having philandered from one end of the house to the other. Disgusting in so many ways, Sir William is the kind of guy whose murder would leave a house full of suspects.
Once the comedy of manners has segued into a murder mystery, Gosford Park reminds us less of an Agatha Christie novel than of a game of Clue ' Mrs. Peacock in the library with a bottle of poison. Despite the appearance of Stephen Fry as a Clouseau-like inspector, the movie doesn't seem very interested in sifting the evidence, but the murder itself does help bring all the plotlines and subplotlines into focus. Who would want to kill Sir William? Well, like the man said, "everyone has his reasons." Or, as Sir William's valet (Derek Jacobi) prefers to put it, "Everybody has something to hide," discretion being the better part of valet, I suppose. I don't want to help solve the crime here, simply report that the movie's solution is both a stretch and strangely satisfying.
But so are the smallest moments, as when Richard Grant, playing first footman George, allows a sneer to race across his face, disappearing before anybody but us has had the chance to see it. "I wanted the audience to feel like they had to look over somebody's shoulder," Altman has said about his directorial approach in this movie, and you do get the sense of eavesdropping on other people's conversations as the camera wanders up and down the stairs and hallways. That the servants are themselves eavesdropping on their masters' conversations only adds to the voyeuristic complexity. There's a wonderful scene where Jeremy Northam, playing the actual British film star Ivor Novello, sings a happy-sad love song at the piano. His upper-crust peers couldn't be less interested; meanwhile, the servants, hidden behind various doors, hang on every note.
For whatever reasons, we're much more interested in the servants than in those they serve. I had trouble keeping the latter straight, so similar were their needs for Sir William's attention and cash. Speaking of cash, there's an American in attendance, a Hollywood producer whom Bob Balaban holds to the fire just long enough to render him a lightly roasted fool. And a bore. Of course, they're all bores upstairs, though some of them vividly so. It's downstairs where the real action is ' those glances and gestures and remarks that signify a class on the rise. "Don't worry, he's nobody," one of the upstairs crowd says when a servant is spotted in the corner. But if Gosford Park says anything, it says that, when it came to true class, the nobodies were somebodies and the somebodies were nobodies. An old message, perhaps, but Altman delivers it with both robust wit and graceful aplomb.