Robert Altman, the lonely warrior, the quintessential American independent filmmaker, has done his best work in many years with an almost purely English film: the classic weekend-of-the-hunt-at-the-country-estate "Gosford Park." Moreover, he not only directs but, as is his style, commissioned its script (by Julian Fellowes) from an idea that he shares only with fellow American Bob Balaban (who also produced the film and acts in it).
The film is set in 1932, when upstairs and downstairs still meant something, and it glides effortlessly from floor to floor. It is a world in which the servants - and each guest has his or her own servant - take the name of their master or mistress. Thus Lord Stockbridge's valet is Mr. Stockbridge to the other servants. The film is merciless in simply taking this for granted.
What plot there is begins with Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), a vicious millionaire who made his fortune on the backs of his factory workers and now dangles allowances and vague promises of money before his titled but impoverished relatives. He is the host. He is also sleeping with his housemaid (Emily Watson), who works for the head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), who is in uneasy alliance with Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), who heads the kitchen. Their contact with the upper level is through Probert (Derek Jacobi) and Jennings, the perfect butler (Alan Bates).
In the film, no one character or story is chosen - exalted, you might say - over the others; but all are given complex personas, into which we can read well-textured lives. There are no caricatures here. A gratifying part of Altman's genius is that he has taken exactly as much time as he needs to show us all of Gosford Park, its geography, geometry and inhabitants. With sixteen characters to play with, he never loses any, holding them all in the palm of a very relaxed directorial hand, while we are riveted to the screen as relationships and revelations are calmly shown.
That is not to say this film is a piece of froth. With the exception of a badly contrived murder - not needed and mistakenly conceived as a joke in the film - there is a very real sadness that Altman shares with us as we come to know his people. Among the acting gems of this all-star cast is Maggie Smith's work as the Countess of Trentham, the wickedly sarcastic aunt of Sir William's wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas); Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello, the actual songwriter/entertainer of the era, who must entertain the guests at the piano with his Noel Coward-like songs; and the sad duet of blighted lives we come to see in the below-stairs Mirren and Eileen Atkins. Even little Ryan Philippe, as an American actor pretending to be a Scots valet, and Balaban himself as a Hollywood producer forever on the phone to the studio, are just right in their roles. This is the kind of rare film that is most enjoyable on first viewing, but only gets richer the second time around.