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Review: Altman provides elegant cinema banquet

"TEA at four. Dinner at eight. Murder at midnight."
As a subtitle for the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park, this sentence is slightly misleading because it gives the impression that you're about to watch a detective story. True, someone does get murdered in the film, even twice, but the crimes only serve the plot as a means to keep all the protagonists under one roof while they are being investigated. The real thrill in Gosford Park is not skullduggery but the interaction between the characters - the servants living below the stairs and the cream of society above.


KELLY Macdonald (left) and Dame Maggie Smith as Constance.
photo: Courtesy of Hollywood Classic Entertainment

Gosford Park

Running time: 137 min
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Camilla Rutherford, Maggie Smith, Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant
Directed by: Robert Altman
Rating: 8 out of 10

"TEA at four. Dinner at eight. Murder at midnight."

As a subtitle for the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park, this sentence is slightly misleading because it gives the impression that you're about to watch a detective story. True, someone does get murdered in the film, even twice, but the crimes only serve the plot as a means to keep all the protagonists under one roof while they are being investigated. The real thrill in Gosford Park is not skullduggery but the interaction between the characters - the servants living below the stairs and the cream of society above.

Gosford Park initially comes on like an Agatha Christie story. An aristocratic couple, William and Sylvia McCordle, invite their relatives and acquaintances to a shooting party at their dazzling country estate. Unresolved family disputes, secret love affairs and personal antipathies between the different characters lead one to expect a catastrophic ending. Emotions run high not only among the noble guests but also among the butlers, cooks and maids.

With the complexity of the cast and the relations between characters, Gosford Park is rather overwhelming. For the first half of the movie the audience struggles to figure out who is who while a story is being told about people who don't seem to have anything in common, despite the fact their lives seem intimately interwoven.

Each of the guests, for example, has an alter ego in the film, one who is not necessarily a married partner. Servants reveal far more about the characters of their masters than their wives do, while apparent small talk in the dining room and the kitchen is freighted with far greater importance than the film's main speeches.

The ensemble Altman gathered at Gosford Park includes upcoming stars and established actors, most of them with a background in theatre, and several of whom are members of the Royal Shakespeare company.

Mrs McCordle's conservative aunt Constance is played by Dame Maggie Smith, who starred in Sister Act. Kelly Macdonald, whom you might remember as the beautiful schoolgirl from Trainspotting, is Constance's young maidservant and one of the few people who can see through the murder mystery.

The most remarkable performance is delivered by Emily Watson, who made her debut in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves and is proving her talent again. She plays the maidservant Elsie who has an affair with her employer and later speaks in his defence, thereby crossing the invisible border between the upstairs and the downstairs world.

The setting for the drama is the elegant 1930's, allowing costume and set designers to wow audiences with their talents. The ladies are drop-dead gorgeous (especially Kristin Scott Thomas, who occupies the largest space on the film's official web site gallery), making you wonder how much time they must have spent on their hairdos and outfits.

The house itself could be considered as one of the film's main characters, because without its labyrinth of corridors and rooms, its opulent crystal chandeliers, china and silver, and the antique furniture, the story would lose some of its lustre.

A special bonus in Gosford Park is the Hollywood movie producer character who comes to England to observe the customs and manners of the upper class. Thanks to him, the film becomes a brilliant mockery of both the film industry and the love-hate relationship between the British and the Americans.

Gosford Park is not for cinema-goers looking for fast-food entertainment - it's just too complex, and the nourishment requires patience and a certain attention span. But if you have the time and energy, this film is one of the better crafted works of cinema art you will see this year.

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