- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

"Gosford Park" adds a distinctive new film to director Robert Altman's collection.
Perhaps this playful and poignant set of variations on themes derived from vintage drawing-room murder mysteries will remind the director's peers that Mr. Altman remains eligible for awards as another Academy Award season approaches. He should not only be a candidate for best director on the strength of "Gosford Park" but also for a career honor of some kind.
His stylistic assurance is on an extraordinary roll and has been since "Kansas City" five years ago.
Perhaps "Gosford Park" can achieve a well-earned reversal of box-office form by drawing on associations from Agatha Christie and her peers or from recollections of the "Upstairs Downstairs" series, which waxed rueful about the class barriers between masters and servants in Edwardian England. "Gosford Park" belongs to a later period, November 1932.
The title refers to the country estate of an ill-humored nobleman named Sir William McCordle, portrayed with impeccably gruff arrogance and encroaching senility by Michael Gambon. A weekend party of pheasant hunting and dining with assorted friends and relatives simmers with discontent and culminates with a murder. The murder remains unsolved in an official sense because the presiding constable (Stephen Fry) turns out to be an amiable dunce.
The solution is revealed to the audience, filtered through the intuition of the most sympathetic newcomer to the party: Kelly Macdonald as Scottish ingenue Mary MacEachran. The gentle, perceptive Mary works as the novice maid to a demanding dowager, Maggie Smith as Constance, the countess of Trentham, who is financially dependent on Sir William while related by blood to his hostile, adulterous wife, Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Sylvia McCordle. The identity of the killer is a minor issue in the calculations of Mr. Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes. They focus on heartaches and embittered relationships across class barriers.
The murder sequence itself demonstrates a triumph of atmospheric and choreographic manipulation. One of Mr. Altman's most fluid and amusing set pieces, it teases us with a promenade of potential suspects to and from the vicinity of a fatal room. This dance of death is timed to a wonderfully disarming interlude in the drawing room as Jeremy Northam, cast as the authentic musical comedy star and film actor Ivor Novello, entertains the company with a medley of his songs.
His performance enthralls many of the downstairs characters while somewhat taxing the patience of such others as Miss Smith's countess. One of the songs, "The Land of Might-Have-Been," proves thematically perfect for the movie. (That's "been" pronounced "bean," by the way.) Somehow, it seems an essential grace note.
The "Upstairs" sequences were shot for the most part at an actual mansion, Syon House. "Downstairs" was constructed on a soundstage under the supervision of Mr. Altman's son, production designer Stephen Altman. Both are impressive and evocative playing fields for social tension and intrigue.
The appearance of Eileen Atkins as the acerbic cook at Gosford Park, Mrs. Croft, adds an amusing note of authority in more ways than one. She makes her presence indelible while recalling the "Upstairs Downstairs" connection Miss Atkins was not a series cast member; she did collaborate in the show's creation.
The strongest emotional currents tend to circulate downstairs. They surface most forcefully in the characters played by Miss Macdonald, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren and Sophie Thompson. The cast is almost absurdly loaded with quality British actors, including Miss Smith, Miss Atkins, Mr. Gambon, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance.
As the American interlopers, Bob Balaban and Ryan Philippe perform very wittily. Only Mr. Jacobi, cast as Sir William's valet, appears shortchanged, but he was something of an honorary cast member, slipped into a bit role while also performing full time in a London play.

* * * *
"Gosford Park"
R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence)
Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Julian Fellowes, based on a story idea by Mr. Altman and Bob Balaban.
RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

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