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Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2002

Lifestyles of the rich and utterly pompous

Gasford Park

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Director: Robert Altman
Running time: 137 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

No one can do ensemble pieces like director Robert Altman, and with "Gosford Park" -- a scathing look at the gentry of 1930s Britain -- he's produced one of his best. Altman had been floundering lately, with a string of middling films such as "Cookie's Fortune" and "Dr. T and The Women," but with "Gosford Park," he's rediscovered his strengths. This is easily his most focused, incisive and entertaining film since "Short Cuts."

News photo
The cast of Robert Altman's ensemble film "Gosford Park"

Like that film, "Gosford Park" employs a swarm of characters and a drop-in/drop-out, episodic narrative to paint a picture of a larger moment in time -- to capture the zeitgeist, as it were. In "Short Cuts," Altman traced modern Los Angeles as a city fraught by disconnection, dissatisfaction and disaster; with "Gosford Park," he turns an outsider's eye to the peculiarities of class and nobility on the eve of war and the empire's decline, and his gaze is unsparing.

Gone are any stiff-upper-lip notions of class based on blood, honor or dignity. Altman -- working with a script by Julian Fellowes, which earned an Oscar this spring -- lays bare the gentry's true bond: money, with everything else just so much cultivated cover. Privilege lies in simply buying, bragging or marrying your way into the network, and survival within it is a dog-eat-dog business. Altman hammers home that point ruthlessly, often wittily, in a film that plays like a Marxist take on "Upstairs, Downstairs."

This isn't to say that Altman takes sides entirely; an eternal lone wolf, he's far too skeptical to fall back on a good-guy/bad-guy approach. One of the film's more amusing observations is how the servants themselves, constrained by class and manners, impose just as rigid a hierarchy in their own quarters, sneering at those who would defy convention.

Altman sets the stage with family and guests descending on the bucolic Home Counties estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) for a weekend of hunting. We get a whirlwind tour of guests arriving and servants attending them, a bustle of activity in which everything must be just so, from the time one arrives for dinner to the clothes one wears for the shoot. God forbid that someone commit a faux pas like being emotional in public. ("Would you stop sniveling? Anyone would think you're Italian," was this critic's favorite line.)

The guests are obsessed with status and image to the exclusion of all else, a fault that's often held up for inspection in Altman's films. Typical is the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), mother of McCordle's much younger wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). She constantly complains about how hard it is being rich, with snide remarks like "I'm breaking in a new maid, there's nothing so tiring," while adding "she's wonderfully cheap."

The countess, you see, is dependent on McCordle's stipend; McCordle, a wealthy businessman, married into his title, but his relationship with Sylvia is hardly bliss. It turns out that just about every male in the household has or wants to marry into McCordle's fortune, through Sylvia's sisters or daughter, and he's had his fill of it.

Downstairs, the servants understandably don't have much respect for their employers. When the Countess' young Scottish maid Mary (Kelly McDonald, "Trainspotting") asks the chauffeur George (Richard E. Grant) what Sir William is like, he replies sourly: "He thinks he's God Almighty. They all do."

Sharing that dim opinion is Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), who's tagged along to the shoot with his friend, British screen star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), hoping to "research" the British aristocracy for a film. "How do you manage to put up with these people?" he asks, after a few cold shoulders. (Mustn't be friendly to anyone who greets you with "Hi!") "You forget," responds Ivor, "I make my living by impersonating them."

It's a nice moment, as is the one where the servants break protocol and furtively gather in the stairwell outside the drawing room where Novello is crooning a tune; wistfully, they hang on his every word. The point is that within a generation movie stars would supplant the nobility in the popular imagination, and that democratic popularity would prove a surer mandate to riches and respect than any title. (Saving that of the monarch, at least.)

Altman crams many such observations into this dense, novelesque film. He deliberately works within genre, making "Gosford Park" into a country-manor murder mystery that Agatha Christie would surely have loved, the sort of flick where you're literally waiting for the pipe-smoking inspector (Stephen Fry) to cry out "the butler did it!" Maids and peers have secret liaisons, deep grudges emerge within the family and Weissman's butler (Ryan Phillippe) seems to be hiding something. But as the head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) points out, "we all have something to hide." Altman strings the threads of the mystery in a dozen directions, but each reveals something of the era, particularly its sexual politics.

Altman has always been a director whom actors want to work with, and for "Gosford Park" he assembled a cast that represents the cream of British talent, which by sheer numbers -- there are more than 20 major roles -- also showcases its depth. There's nary a complaint to be made, but several stars shine brighter: Maggie Smith drips with aristocratic arrogance, while Kristin Scott Thomas can play the ice-queen role better than anyone. The look of bored indifference as she gets Ryan Phillippe to unzip her dress is priceless, like she's thinking "oh, sex, yawn. Well, I suppose so . . . " Emily Watson provides an emotional center, the quick-to-catch-on maid who takes Kelly McDonald's novice under her wing, while Helen Mirren and Alan Bates portray more buttoned-up types, hiding their feelings behind the rules and rituals.

The film's fresh, lived-in feel comes from the director's innovative approach on set. The actors were encouraged to ad lib throughout each scene, and each was equipped with a small wireless mike as two cameras covered different aspects of the many dinners, teas and social gatherings. Altman's goal was to widen the focus, to let the characters come alive and see what would develop. The result is a highly layered film, full of detail in both the foreground and background, and loaded with those wonderful moments that arise when actors are let off the leash.

"Gosford Park" is a classic study in cinematic schizophrenia, a love-hate relationship on celluloid. The film, with its proletarian sentiments, positively sneers at the callous, parasitic and pampered toffs on display. But it also revels in their lifestyle, lovingly re-creating their rituals, dress and decor, like any good costume-drama should. It's rare that a film can have it both ways, but "Gosford Park" does just that. Wealth is capable of creating both great beauty and great injustice, and Altman is mature enough to acknowledge both.

The point is not so much to say, look how horrible these people were, but rather: Look at how sure they were of themselves, arrogant in their traditions, their narrow perspectives and ossified assumptions. But they were not immune to seismic change. Therein lies the lesson.

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