The ruling class

Servants and masters cross boundaries in echt whodunit.


directed by Robert Altman with Emily Watson, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, and Clive Owen opens Jan. 4 at Pacific Place and Seven Gables

AN ORNERY CUSS, Robert Altman seems to make movies to please no one but himself. The results can be awful (Kansas City, Dr. T & the Women), but you’ve got to love the guy’s refusal to settle into safe late-career mediocrity like Scorsese or Woody Allen. In short, Gosford Park is Altman’s best film since Short Cuts (1993), no masterpiece like Nashville, but still a bracing, vigorous comedy of manners and class distinctions. Certainly his cast is Nashville-esque in size and talent: Upper-crusty weekend guests including Maggie Smith, Charles Dance, and Jeremy Northam gather at the mansion of Michael Gambon and Kristen Scott Thomas; unwelcome token Americans are Bob Balaban, a Hollywood producer, and Ryan Phillippe, his valet. Downstairs, the latter joins teeming servants’ quarters populated by Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Croupier‘s Clive Owen, and Trainspotting‘s Kelly Macdonald.

Forget about names. Servants are addressed by the names of their masters, but the hierarchy between server and served begins slipping immediately. Bitchy, funny, imperious Smith is attended by Macdonald, whom she forces to stand in the pouring rain, then later familiarly begs for gossip. It’s 1932, and we know the old class system is soon to be shattered by the Depression and war, but appearances must be maintained— in public, at least. In private, after hours, hostess Scott Thomas can entertain the affections of brash Phillippe; later we see a young guest humping a scullery maid. There are consequences to such familiarity, however, which Gosford only gradually makes clear.

Of his blue-blood hosts, says Northam’s Ivor Novello (an actual matinee idol of the era), “I make my living impersonating them.” He’s a self-invented man of the new age, a Cary Grant-style idealization of the posh set, and hence an outsider like their hired help. (In Gosford‘s loveliest scene, servants gather to listen and dance in the shadows while Novello sings for his supper.) Even as aristocracy and empire are crumbling, the illusion of old social strata lingers in fleeting harmony.

Yet dissonant strains are heard throughout Gosford, which is riddled with typically Altman-esque detours and dead ends. Birds are shot, songs are performed (Northam is suaver than suave), and a bigwig is murdered—prompting the investigation of cheerfully incompetent cop Stephen Fry. Never one to spell out plots or identities, Altman does try your patience with the dillydallying, but Gosford has an underlying moral structure that’s finally, breathtakingly clear and affecting. The movie’s longueurs are forgiven, while its characters’ sins are not.