Gosford Park (15)

Review by Simon Bell

IT'S AN earthquake that finally unites all in Short Cuts (1993), while a typhoon is pivotal to the goings-on of Gingerbread Man (1997) and a rain storm the catalyst of change in Dr T & The Women (2001).

It's the downpour that opens Gosford Park, meanwhile, that provides a suitable blanket of universality under which we see a shooting party converge on the country estate of the film's name.

It focuses on Michael Gambon as businessman Sir William McCordle, the aberrant Croesus at the head of the Home Counties domain he shares with his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) and to which the guests, their maids and valets swarm one miserable day in 1932.

An askance look at the decrepitude of the aristocracy: a social class ravaged by World War One, the Empire's diminuendo and such modern fads as Hollywood and the emancipation of women, Robert Altman's surefire Oscar clean-up is the best of an entire genre of satire that stretches as far back as Agatha Christie and beyond. In no way, however, could anyone label this orderly ruffling of the feathers a tired venture.

Irony heaped upon double meaning wrapped in paradox, there's a multi-layered texture of complexity in this film that is expertly captured by Altman's polyphonic overlapping dialogue, long takes and prowling camera (the frames move as if the audience is atop a silver platter, endlessly gliding through vast rooms and corridors, over tables and behind pillars).

There's complexities elsewhere, almost as if the movie is based solidly on them: The fact that those below stairs follow a strict set of rules and etiquette, as preposterous but central to their existence as those above, shows that the servants and their masters are not so different after all. Their equal fascination with the serenading composer Ivor Novello provides another link.

The persiflage of Jeremy Northam's Novello and Bob Balaban's LA producer Morris Weissman (the latter came up with the idea for the film and produced it with Altman) is intricately inscribed by writer Julian Fellowes and highlights the screenplay's many dividends.

This is a long way from the unknowns Altman amassed for his first big hitter M*A*S*H (1969), featuring - most notably - Dame Maggie Smith as the haughty Grand Dame, Constance Trentham; Kelly MacDonald as her hireling, Mary Macreachran; Helen Mirren the housekeeper-with-a-secret Mrs Wilson; Emily Watson's seen-it-all-before domestic, Elsie; Clive Owen's Robert Parks; and Richard E Grant as George the valet.

Of course the stellar cast adds that essential touch of class. But it's the idiosyncracy of Altman's métier that makes Gosford Park such an unmissable cinematic event.