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Get a Clue

Robert Altman revives his rep with an old-fashioned murder mystery

Who would have guessed that 31 years after M*A*S*H, the film that made Robert Altman's reputation, he would still be turning out movies as good as his latest release, Gosford Park? Full of the director's usual energy, powered by the sense of controlled chaos that marks all of his ensemble films, Gosford Park finds the quintessentially American director completely at home in the alien milieu of England in 1932. Ironically, his last sally into a European setting, 1994's fashion-world satire Prêt-à-Porter, was one of the low points of his filmography.

In form, Gosford Park belongs to the tradition of innumerable old movies (including many adapted from Agatha Christie) in which a group of people, all with their own agendas, are thrown together in an isolated country house; a murder occurs, and a savvy detective must figure out who, out of the several guests with strong motives, committed the crime. As usual, Altman is less concerned with crafting a perfect example of the genre as he is with examining the genre itself. His approach is not so much a satire (Neil Simon already did the ultimate parody in the 1976 Murder By Death) as a reimagining of the genre's conventions, with the class elements emphasized.

Like M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts and numerous other Altman projects, Gosford Park drops the viewer into a complex, frantic situation with no clear-cut protagonist to cling to. The closest the film comes to a central character is Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), a demure young maid accompanying her aged employer, the snobbish Lady Trentham (Maggie Smith, who also appeared in Murder By Death), for a weekend party at the summer house of crusty Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), whose cold-hearted wife, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), is Lady Trentham's niece.

The "downstairs" people know all about what's going on "upstairs." Emily Watson is the head housemaid.
The "downstairs" people know all about what's going on "upstairs." Emily Watson is the head housemaid.

Also in attendance are Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville and Natasha Wightman) and their husbands (Charles Dance and Tom Hollander). In addition, there is the McCordle daughter (Camilla Rutherford); Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), the real-life British songwriter and matinee idol whose persona Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes have borrowed for the film; and his guest, a Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban, who also co-produced Gosford Park) doing background research for the upcoming Charlie Chan in London.

If this seems intimidatingly complicated, be assured that you haven't heard the half of it. There are four more guests, whose relationship to the others continues to baffle me after two viewings of the movie. Indeed, two of them seem so tangential to everything in the film that one can only wonder if they are remnants of a subplot that was excised in the final cut. And we haven't even gotten to the servants yet, who are the heart of the story.

What the servants lack in money and power, they compensate for with ritual and knowledge. That is, while they know everything that's going on in both their realm and the "upstairs" world of their wealthy and/or titled employers, the latter know very little about what goes on "downstairs." Altman is careful to show us the omnipresence of the "downstairs" people, even as they strive to self-effacingly blend in with the woodwork. On one hand, it is their pleasure and validation to serve; on the other, they are completely aware of the their bosses' utter helplessness without them.

Mary, new to service, functions as our surrogate, while the house staff -- butler (Alan Bates), housekeeper (Helen Mirren), cook (Eileen Atkins, co-creator of Upstairs Downstairs, to which this film clearly owes a debt), footmen (Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Swift) and head housemaid (Emily Watson) -- explain to her the insane rules mandated by tradition. They inform her that visiting servants will be addressed only by the names of their employers, effectively stripping them of any other identity; likewise, each will have his or her seat at dinner determined by the employer's rank.

This may sound like P.G. Wodehouse-land: Jeeves, who took the notion of valet duty into the realm of genius, would have been at home here. But aside from Jeeves, Wodehouse was less concerned with the community of servants, and he never would have ventured near Gosford Park's concern with sexual matters, particularly the "class miscegenation" between the upstairs and downstairs folk.

If there is a problem with Gosford Park, it's that Altman seems so enthralled with the interplay of the characters that he's reluctant to put much energy into the mystery itself. The murder doesn't occur until somewhere past the midway point. And the "brilliant" inspector (Stephen Fry) is so totally imbecilic, so broadly portrayed, that he seems to have wandered in from a different film altogether, quite possibly Murder By Death. Still, there is a payoff on the murder, one inextricably integrated with all the class interactions the movie has set up so carefully.

As is always his style in his ensemble films, Altman has his cameramen prowl around a set in which numerous events are unfolding simultaneously; he often seems to concentrate on the most trivial (if absorbing) activities, while the important stuff is going on in the background or solely on the soundtrack. It's a canny technique, particularly for a mystery: We never know whether the highlighting of certain things is important or not. When the camera adopts such an indiscriminate eye, clues can be dropped in without being obvious.

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