Comedy of Manors

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2002

It's the kind of weekend you'll never be invited to, chum.

One of those big English houses, way out in the country. Place as big as an ocean liner. Upstairs: Prigs, twits, rotters, spiffs, toffs, cads, bounders and assorted empire riffraff, all beautiful, all beautifully dressed, mostly stupid. Downstairs: workers and drones, cooks, gardeners, chauffeurs, maids and butlers, footmen and, er, footladies (I guess). Mostly smart.

For fun the upstairs people gossip or fornicate or kill (hundreds of birds and at least one knighted bloke), eat, drink, suck up, put down or cut. The snotty quip is a high art. To get the invite you either have to have had an ancestor at the Round Table, be in pictures or be worth 10 million quid.

For fun the downstairs people . . . well, they don't have any fun. Ever. It's part of the job description.

In other words, it's Robert Altman's randy good time in British society, "Gosford Park," in which Agatha Christie meets Evelyn Waugh with additional dialogue by Noel Coward. How veddy British, except of course for the American fellow on the phone, the producer of the Charlie Chan movies, who is worried all the time about whether Clara Bow is right for a part in the next Charlie.

The year is 1932, and Sir William McCordle (the magnificently grumpy Michael Gambon, with a face of ruin and a voice made mahogany by gallons of port) has convened a weekend shoot. It's difficult to tell who has it worse, the birdies in the sky or the downstairs staff, who must stage-manage, choreograph and actually perform the weekend's worth of social theater, while the golden lads and lasses upstairs sit around drinking, scheming, boasting, trysting, all while trying to avoid the reality that they must, like chimney sweeps, eventually turn to dust.

Attending on Sir William's whim are relatives and hangers-on, mostly worthless. One of the rules of the game seems to be that the more honor and decency you have, the farther you are from the center of things and the more contempt you arouse. For example, Raymond, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance), is an actual war hero. Everyone ignores him for the society patter of the smooth actor chappie Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam in the role of an actual star of the time), who sends all the ladies into swoons.

Altman, from a script by Julian Fellowes based on an idea the director shared with co-producer and co-star Bob Balaban (he plays the American film producer, whose idiocy on matters social keeps inviting correction and serves as expository rule-setting for us colonials), is pulling off the great trick. He is parodying a form while obeying its laws exquisitely and delivering its pleasures perfectly.

So while it's all familiar – the metaphor of house as society, with its toffs and laborers separated by a floor that stands for a class barrier – it's also freshly twisted. The movie is built, eventually, around a mystery: Someone is murdered, and a detective is brought in to sort it all out.

That's classic; here's Altman's delicious twist on it: The detective, played by Stephen Fry, noted so widely for his Oscar Wilde impressions, is a complete idiot. He only messes things up; he's Sherlock Holmes's dumber brother (and is delicious as he orders his constable to "clean up that mess," which is the murder scene). The real detective is the countess's maid, Mary (Kelly Macdonald; you'll recognize her because you'll think she's Kate Winslet), who sorts through matters, uncovers a secret grid of kinship and resentment and divines who was in the library with Sir William that night, and broke his heart by ramming a kitchen knife through it.

But the mystery isn't the driving force to the movie, though its solution, I am happy to report, is as elegant as anything Dame Agatha ever conjured. The true concern of "Gosford Park" is with the British fascination for the way the class system has sundered its own society.

We see over and over again the lessons of Sir James M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton," which is that in nature the superior man wins out, but in society the connected one does. (Jean Renoir's great "Rules of the Game" made a similar point.) Most of the boys beneath the stairs are the sort you'd want in your foxhole (the very cool Clive Owen being the best), while most of the upstairs lads wouldn't be caught anywhere near a foxhole. The same thing is true of the true-blue downstairs gals and the envy-green upstairs phantasms (so skinny and wispy, especially Kristin Scott Thomas as Sir William's faithless, worthless wife, Sylvia).

But at the same time, Altman doesn't grind this ax too, uh, grindingly. It's a very funny movie in that sniffy Brit way, with the grand Maggie Smith, as the dowager bat Constance, Countess of Trentham, holding the crown for malicious malignancy crossed with snobbish grotesqueness. To watch Constance dice her nephew and host Sir William (for his lack of heroism in the War) or poor pretty Mr. Novello for the failure of his film "The Lodger" is probably worth the price of admission.

Some flaws: Too many of the overlords, like guys in a war movie, seem alike; even with their clean faces, I couldn't keep them straight. And the "American" subplot, with Balaban as the movieman Weissman and Ryan Phillippe as his Scottish valet, really doesn't pay off in proportion for the screen time it takes up.

But all in all, "Gosford Park" has nothing nice to say about anybody, and I like that in a movie.

GOSFORD PARK (R, 137 minutes) contains language and sexual overtones. At the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company