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Mysterious Mr. Altman 

It's not enough that Gosford Park is a complex, layered and often-hilarious period piece featuring an ensemble cast and loaded with flawless performances all around. Or that it's a sly recasting of Jean Renoir's 1939 classic Rules of the Game as an Agatha Christie or Col. Mustard mystery that builds on themes of social-class conflict.

No, what makes Gosford Park all of a piece is the welcome return to form of the great American director Robert Altman, who, approaching his 77th birthday, has shown that he's still got it. Making what may be his best film in a decade, Altman proves that not only can he make the cutting social satire that infused everything from 1970's M*A*S*H to 1992's The Player, but he can also tell a story with true vitality and heart.

Gosford Park is a sometimes-dizzying ensemble comedy that could easily get by on just being sly, but its ultimate sense of humanity, however subtly done, makes it more complete. That Altman sometimes gets a little lost in his own story, written by Julian Fellowes from an idea hatched by Altman and co-producer/co-star Bob Balaban, is being niggling to say the least.

In this, his first foray overseas, Altman sets up an "upstairs-downstairs" construct in the 1930s, with England in between wars and clinging to the notions of its fading empire. That doesn't stop the socialites who gather for a hunting weekend at the home of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) to treat their servants like chattel. It's almost as if they're taking their fading status out on the hired help, sending them off on needless errands, sleeping with them on the fly, or, worse still, completely ignoring them.

But the relationships are incredibly intertwined; both classes need each other more than they care to admit. After two servants gossip endlessly about the fates of their superiors, head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson) takes another drag off her cigarette and hisses to Mary (Kelly Macdonald), "Why do we spend our lives living through them?"

Gossip, in the form of Altman's classic overlapping dialogue, seems near the heart of the story, as sub-plots unfold (again, in classic Altman fashion) and secrets spill. Everyone who shows up at the McCordle estate has a bone to pick with Sir William, and as you can imagine, money is the marrow. As rich as they seem, most of the guests/relatives are completely dependent upon him, and, of course, he couldn't give a rat's ass; he's much more concerned about eating, screwing and his raggy dog.

No sooner is the last suspect's agenda revealed than Sir William is killed, during a mesmerizing scene in which a distant relative, Hollywood singer-matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), serenades the party and servants. Intercutting between the performance and the murder, Altman illustrates a telling contrast; despite Ivor's charisma, the guests (all except one, the closest among the party to a commoner) are generally bored and self-absorbed, while the servants, hanging out around the periphery, are enchanted. They are on the outside looking in, appreciating a moment of aesthetic beauty that their "betters" so routinely take for granted. It is, without a doubt, one of Altman's truly great moments of filmmaking, as the servants find an opportunity to lose themselves while the guests are oblivious to how lost they are -- and will be, once the dead body is discovered.

The sub-plots are many and sometimes confusing; you almost need a score card to keep up with the players (which the production company, USA Films, actually provided to the media!). But among the best are the struggle of Mary trying to placate the implacable Countess Trentham (Maggie Smith, at her absolute best); the downstairs rivalry between the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and the cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins); and the mere presence of one of the many visiting valets, Robert Parks. Clive Owen gives his Parks a smile that's too knowing for his stature, with a mysterious past that intrigues everyone from Mary (a potential love interest) to his pushy roommate (Ryan Phillippe).

Certainly, Altman's up to many of his old tricks, peeling away the onions of class and character. But unlike recent tired efforts like Cookie's Fortune or even Ready to Wear, Gosford Park brims with life and care. Never wittier, his running gag of Hollywood mogul Morris Weissman's constant obsession with long-distance calls back home (where's a cell phone when they needed one?) drops in just at the right moment.

But it is when the mystery is solved that Altman shows his greatest vitality. So often criticized for his reliance on irony and cynicism, Altman ties everything up in such wistful, melancholic fashion that you can't help but care for everything he's done up to that point. By making a sort-of ultimate statement about the relationship between the classes, even under the guise of murder, Altman shows new life as a filmmaker.

And if there was mystery about that over the past decade, the mystery is solved here.

click to enlarge Service with a smile: Eager valet Henry (Ryan Phillippe) lends more than a helping hand to Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) in Gosford Park.
  • Service with a smile: Eager valet Henry (Ryan Phillippe) lends more than a helping hand to Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) in Gosford Park.
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