Over the last decade, Robert Altman has apparently made it his career goal to alternate small bits of genius with inexplicable crap. Every Short Cuts has its PrÃªt-Ã¡-Porter. Every Cookie’s Fortune has its Dr. T & the Women. It’s like the “even-odd” rule for the Star Trek films—even-numbered installments good, odd-numbered installments lousy—applied to a legendary auteur.
So what does Altman decide to do when coming off of the aforementioned, hideous Dr. T and one of the good ones is due? He opts for a de facto remake of one of the greatest films of all time—Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game—spliced with Murder on the Orient Express. The film is Gosford Park, and it should have been yet another of Altman’s exercises in gross miscalculation. Instead, it turns into the kind of sprawling and delightful human symphony that nobody does better than Altman.
Based on an idea by Altman and actor Bob Balaban, Julian Fellowes’ script moves Rules of the Game’s 1930s upper-crust hunting party from France to England. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) has invited friends and family for a weekend at the titular country estate, where hostilities begin to simmer straightaway. Family members like the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) and Sir William’s brother-in-law Anthony (Tom Hollander) resent their host’s power over their fiscal future. Others, like Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) and his wife Mabel (Claudie Blakley), cling tenuously to the fringes of society as their money runs out.
Things are equally testy in the servants’ world below-stairs. The Countess’ new maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald) finds Gosford Park’s staff divided into minor fiefdoms of power, with most of them openly contemptuous of their idle masters. And when the servants of Sir William’s guests are added to the mix—like Henry (Ryan Phillippe), the sharp-tongued valet of American movie producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban)—the interactions grow even trickier.
On the glossiest surface level, Gosford Park delivers the sort of comedy of manners that seemed to go out of style around the time this film is set. Altman doesn’t so much direct performances as choreograph them, sending his absurdly talented cast—folks like Jeremy Northam, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Clive Owen and Alan Bates—into a series of brilliant dialogue duets, trios and choral pieces. While rarely laugh-out-loud funny—except when Stephen Fry turns up as an inspector who makes Monty Python’s Dim of the Yard look like Sherlock Holmes—Gosford Park consistently offers sly, dry humor.
The source of most of that humor is also the source of the film’s richest subtext. Like The Rules of the Game before it, Gosford Park looks at a dying world of inherited privilege. But in some ways, Altman digs even deeper than Renoir, showing the thinly-veiled antagonism hidden beneath the decorum, and seething resentments among the wealthy as assumptions of continued wealth vanish without any talent to back them up. Gosford Park also explores the blurry line separating old-guard servants who take pride in the life of service and a younger generation that recognizes the ridiculousness of their employers. And with a few extra minutes, the film expertly skewers Hollywood through Weissman’s always-urgent calls to discuss his latest project.
The performances in Gosford Park are so uniformly magnificent, that it would be easy to spend two hours doing nothing more than wallowing in the richness of the characterizations. Maggie Smith’s Countess drips acidic contempt for everyone and everything; Mirren and Bates present portraits in quivering stiff upper lips as Gosford Park’s housekeeper and butler, respectively. Even Ryan Phillippe—yes, that Ryan Phillippe—does splendid, sneaky work. If you filled all five nomination slots in the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories with performances from Gosford Park, you’d be hard pressed to find any argument against it.
But it’s even more satisfying watching Altman succeed at so audacious a conceit as tinkering with a classic. Perhaps he realized that with a dud just behind him, the odds were on his side. His little gamble has resulted in one of the most delicious parties you’ll attend all year.