DRY AND DELICIOUS as Boodles gin, "The Shooting Party" is a fine film version of Isabel Colegate's 1980 novel about an accidental death at a weekend sporting "shoot" for English gentry.
Directed by Alan Bridges with a tony, burnished look and a cast skimmed from Who's Who in British Theater, it makes an elegant, elegiac metaphor for the fading years of the pre-World War I Edwardian Era.
"Life is so enormously pleasant for those of us who have been fortunate enough to have been born in the right place," says landowner and shoot host Sir Randolph Nettleby with more than a hint of wistful melancholy. And the imminent end of these idyllic days for the privileged class is heavily foreshadowed in each formally composed frame and every Meaningful Look lingered over by the camera. During the vivid shooting scenes -- the sky is darkened by plummeting birds -- it's clear that only a few of Colegate's characters realize that soon they, too, will be dead ducks.
Colegate doesn't seem particularly sorry to see the passing of the era: The movie draws the nobility as anything but noble. Affected and insensitive, they are concerned more with sportsmanship and dressing for dinner than with human dignity, and their idle pasttimes are depicted with marked irony.
Julian Bond, who scripted "Upstairs, Downstairs," had the daunting task of translating the interior life of Colegate's thickly populated novel into visual images. Every word counts in Bond's spare script; he has trimmed a few characters and reshuffled the structure, slowly building toward the galvanizing shooting accident near the end of the film.
The actors' features must tell much of this tale, and by that light, this is a particularly well-chosen cast. Judi Bowker has a glowing, porcelain purity as the chastely rebellious Lady Olivia; Rupert Frazer captures the contradictions in the angular, sensitive-looking writer Lionel Stephens who carries on a high- minded flirtation with married Olivia; and Edward Fox lends his cold, slightly twisted looks to the cuckolded Lord Gilbert Hartlip.
With his timeworn features and aristocratic tones, James Mason is particularly affecting in his final film performance, as the compassionate Nettleby.
THE SHOOTING PARTY -- At the K-B Fine Arts and the K-B Paris.