Like Woody Allen ("Deconstructing Harry"), moviegoers can almost always expect a new film from director Robert Altman each year, and true to form, the veteran director delivered yet another feature at the tail end of 2001. This time around, Altman has crafted an old-fashioned Agatha Christie-type British murder-mystery, with a dash of "Upstairs, Downstairs" thrown in for good measure. And though "Gosford Park" is not as accomplished as Altman's best films (such as "M*A*S*H*", "Nashville", or "The Player"), this ensemble drama does redeem him for last year's misogynistic mess of a movie, "Dr. T and the Women".
The year is 1932, and the action unfolds at the estate of Gosford Park, where Sir William (Michael Gambon of "The Insider") and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott-Thomas of "Random Hearts") have invited their well-heeled friends and associates for a shooting party. Among those invited are Constance the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith, seen recently in "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone"), Sir William's sister, Sylvia's sister Louisa (Geraldine Somerville of "Deep Blue Sea") and her husband Lt. Commander Anthony Meredith (Tom Hollander), Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance of "Hilary and Jackie") and his wife Lavinia (Natasha Wightman), the Honorable Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby of "Regeneration") and his wife Mabel (Claudie Blakley), as well as actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam of "Emma") and producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban of "The Majestic", who also helped Altman come up with the idea for the film), both of whom are from Hollywood.
Attending to the needs and whims of well-to-do is an army of servants, who mostly go about their work downstairs under the stern direction of Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren of "The Pledge"). There is the ever-loyal butler Jennings (Alan Bates), head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins of "The Avengers"), the contemptuous footman George (Richard E. Grant of "Spice World"), the laissez-faire head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson of "Angela's Ashes"), and the valet Probert (Derek Jacobi of "Gladiator"). Joining the regular staff of Gosford Park are the servants of the guests, who include Mary (Kelly Macdonald of "Trainspotting"), the new maid that Constance is 'breaking in', Lord Stockbridge's new valet Raymond (Clive Owen of "Croupier"), and Weissman's valet Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe of "AntiTrust"), who isn't as he appears.
For the film's first hour, the audience is privy to the gossiping and behind-the-scenes goings-on at Gosford Park as the camera jumps back-and-forth between the dozens of characters, both upstairs and downstairs. Though this part can be overwhelmingly talky and densely dry to some viewers, it gives a snapshot of who the guests are what their stakes in Sir William are as economically as possible. What is also interesting is that despite the differences in social status between them, it seems that there is little difference in how the guests and the servants conduct themselves, facetiously adhering to protocol and hierarchies while snobbishly firing barbs at one another in private. For example, similar to how the guests at Sir William's table are seated by title, the servants are also seated by rank, either within in Sir William's household or by the title of the guests they serve. And as Constance insults Weissman's "Charlie Chan" movies, Mrs. Wilson tries to put the enigmatic Henry Denton in his place for breaching protocol.
Of course, all this is set up for what happens in the film's second half, a murder at midnight. By this point, it seems that half of the people in the household have a motive and the means, which is further fleshed out with the arrival of Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) and his perceptive assistant Constable Dexter (Ron Webster). And though Thompson's incompetence puts him in the league of Inspector Closeau rather than Hercule Poirot, a series of startling revelations and enlightening verbal exchanges gradually circle the narrative back to the unexpected but very human tragedy that has motivated such a crime.
As usual, Altman does quite a bit of name-dropping in "Gosford Park" with a cast of British all-stars, all of whom are exceptional with the limited screen-time that such a large ensemble allows. Of particular note are Macdonald, who as the newcomer to the downstairs crew, is likable as the audience's proxy into uncovering the intrigue of Gosford Park, Fry as the amusingly clueless inspector, and Mirren, whose no-nonsense Mrs. Wilson hides some deep emotional scars.
Overall, "Gosford Park" is good, but not great. For the impatient, the film will probably feel long, as it isn't until an hour has elapsed that anything significant happens, and most of the plot development relies on overheard conversations. However, those with an ear for smartly written dialogue and penchant for whodunit mysteries with English settings will probably find enough in "Gosford Park" to make it a worthwhile weekend stay.