- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

NEW YORK — "Gosford Park" ranks easily as the most British production in the career of movie director Robert Altman.

Only two Americans play principal roles. One is Bob Balaban, also one of the film's producers, who was drafted for a supporting role belatedly.

The British acting ensemble, recruited to play aristocratic residents and guests and their loyal servants, numbered about 30 with speaking parts. In the movie, they gather for a fateful weekend hunting party in 1932 at a country estate called Gosford Park.

Four of this group of actors brought titles to the show: Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Eileen Atkins, Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Michael Gambon. A colleague of about the same vintage, Alan Bates, seems to have missed a date with England's honors apparatus.

A younger quartet Jeremy Northam, Emily Watson, Clive Owen and Kelly Macdonald represented the movie at recent promotional interviews with the news media. The eldest was Mr. Northam, who had celebrated his 40th birthday the previous day, and the youngest was 25-year-old Scottish ingenue Miss Macdonald.

The four testified to the professional surprises and satisfactions of being part of an Altman ensemble.

Mr. Northam thinks it's remarkable that a man of 75 would still have exceptional zest for the medium.

"I marvel at anyone who can preserve an appetite for the daily routine of making a film on a limited budget at the tail end of a cold English winter, having to deal with all those egos and make everyone feel good," he says. "He was never bad-tempered. He seemed to have a great time no matter how tired he might have felt."

The actor confirms that the venerable director resorts to a special easy chair on the set, "a kind of S-shaped recliner."

"Bob's knees and feet are very bad. Towards the end of the shoot, I recall a moment when something was being set up and he was taking a nap. I found a little corner of my own on the set and started to take five. Suddenly I was aware of the sound of gentle female laughter around Bob," he says. "It was quite lovely. There were devoted assistant producers and others hovering about. He tries to foster a familial atmosphere, and I was hearing one of its endearing manifestations."

Mr. Northam, familiar to American moviegoers from leading roles in "Emma," "The Net," "Amistad" and "An Ideal Husband," emerges as something of a secret weapon in "Gosford Park." He plays the only character based on an actual person, Ivor Novello, a popular composer and actor during the period recalled in the movie. At the outset, he had not anticipated that singing a medley of vintage Novello songs would loom as large as it does in the finished film.

"Robert asked me if I could play the piano and sing," he recalls. "I said, 'A little, but that was a long time ago.' Then when we got to the set, Bob was expansively saying, 'Jeremy can play and sing, so we'll be working some of that into the Novello character.' When push came to shove, I had about two weeks to find songs I could handle. Bob had been attracted to Novello when he was researching another project years ago. He went through the song catalog, and we ended up with half a dozen tunes that seemed promising.

"The one I'm really pleased with, of course, is 'The Land of Might-Have-Been,' which Novello set to a poem by Edward Moore. I don't think he liked it so much, but it's a rather wonderful song for our purposes," Mr. Northam says. "What's that over-quoted Noel Coward line? 'It's strange how potent cheap music can be.' Not that there's anything cheap about Novello's melody, but in our setting it acquires something special. It expresses a lot of the heartbreak that so many characters are hiding or suffering."

Mr. Northam also believes that the movie reveals a reflective turning point for the filmmaker. "What struck me when finally seeing the finished film is that this could only be made by someone at Bob's time of life. It has such grace and forgiveness at heart. It would be very easy to make a similar film in which the narrowness or mean-spiritedness of the society were all that was portrayed."

Miss Watson, cast as a cynical housemaid named Elsie, joined the production two weeks late. "It was kind of touch-and-go whether I'd be able to schedule it," she says. "We made it work, anyway, and I arrived to watch a scene about arrivals, emphasizing all the 'upstairs' characters. I thought, 'This is complete chaos. Nobody knows what they're doing.' I'd never seen anything like it a lot of actors wandering around muttering, with two cameras evidently recording them in some pattern. I thought I'd walked into a mess. Then Bob said, 'OK, I think we're ready to try one,' and with the cameras rolling in earnest, it became the most beautifully choreographed and subtle thing."

One of the storytelling schemes of the movie is that every impression of the upstairs characters is linked with the observation of an attending servant from downstairs. "The first part, the upstairs part, was mostly shot in stately homes," Miss Watson says. "We switched to a set at Shepperton for the downstairs part, but what an extraordinary set. It was like being inside a dollhouse. You could see into a lot of it all the time. All these corridors and rooms. Just a beautifully designed geometry. There were no extras in the movie. If you didn't have lines on a particular day, you were kind of in the back of the shot, folding towels or something."

Helen Mirren, who was recovering from laryngitis suffered while co-starring with Ian McKellen in a Broadway revival of Strindberg's "Dance of Death" at the time of the interviews, plays the housekeeper of Gosford Park. The project reunites her with Mr. Owen, also in the cast of the recent "Greenfingers." The Owen and Mirren characters in "Gosford Park" share a pivotal relationship.

Mr. Owen, the sardonic young actor who rose to prominence as the star of "Croupier," recalls feeling "hugely excited" at the prospect of being in an Altman movie. "He makes everyone feel it's the easiest thing in the world to shoot a movie. There's no tension on the set, but underneath you know that there's this sharp filmic brain that knows exactly what's going on all the time. I've been with some very, very talented directors, but you give them more than four actors with lines in any scene, and they're stretched. Altman can throw in 15 people with lines and make it seem effortless."

The actor also detected an aversion to line readings that fall into place too methodically. "Bob will go out of his way to disrupt the standard procedure of line, line, line, line. His overlapping dialogue is one way of preventing that from happening. If it threatens to happen in rehearsal, he'll throw in something to break up the monotony. He's always looking for perspectives beyond, 'Let's just shoot the dialogue.' He keeps shifting perspectives and playing with them to build up these complicated social webs."

Born and reared in Glasgow, Miss Macdonald has an accent thick enough to be almost impenetrable when played back on tape. But she has effectively softened and clarified it for the role of Mary MacEachern, a novice maid who becomes an amateur sleuth by keeping her eyes and ears open at Gosford Park.

"Mary could just watch and listen and react and be a kind of shy, premature Miss Marple. I was worried that I didn't seem to be doing anything," she says. "Bob tried to reassure me, but I thought I should have some sort of quirk. So he suggested Mary might point her toes in a bit as she walked. I tried that until my feet started to hurt too much. I think it was his way of calming me down. He's very funny. Quiet and funny. He pokes fun at things and people because he's so entertained by life."

Miss Macdonald walked into the acting profession when she was hired for a role in "Trainspotting" after attending an open audition.

"Really, all I wanted was to find out what an audition was like," she says. "I was in art school in Glasgow, but there wasn't any drama program associated with it. I had a teacher when I was a little younger who said that anyone could act, and I wasn't sure if there was anything to that. I've been learning as I go along ever since."

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