Robert Altman's name alone is legend. Director of such films as M*A*S*H and (hey, y'all) Nashville, it's a rarely contested statement that the man is a film-making legend.

His latest gem features some of the best that British film and stage have to offer, from the flawless Maggie Smith (The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone), to witty Kelly McDonald (of Trainspotting fame). Conceived by Altman and actor Bob Balaban and penned by Julian Fellowes, the movie has been nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and two Best Supporting Actress nods for Smith and Helen Mirren.

Set over a hunting weekend at a country manor house (from which the film takes its name), this twisty, rich narrative follows two paths. Although the movie is, ostensibly, a whodunit, that's not at all what it's about. The classic Murder Mystery becomes a mere backdrop for an entirely different flavour of film. It's a movie about class, the kind you're born into and the kind that you do or do not posess. It's a movie about the caste system that was still very much in place during the 1930s, when the setting takes place. It's about the casual cruelties that are inflicted under the banner of propriety. From the snobbery that shuns a lady who didn't bring a maid for the weekend to the simple failure of, by and large, everyone to recognize the servants as individuals or even things remotely resembling people. A great many reviewers have compared the movie to the 1970s BBC tv series Upstairs, Downstairs, too.

(Above Stairs)
Micheal Gambon  as   Sir William McCordle
Kristin Scot Thomas   as   Lady Sylvia McCordle
Camilla Rutherford   as   Isobell McCordle
Maggie Smith   as   Constance, Countess of Trentham
Charles Dance   as   Lord Raymond of Stockbridge
Geraldine Somerville  as Lady Louisa of Stockbridge
Tom Hollander   as  Lieutenant Anthony Meredith
Natasha Wightman   as  Lady Lavinia Meredith
James Willby  as   The Honorable Freddy Nesbitt
Claudie Blakley  as  Mabel Nesbitt
Laurence Fox  as  Lord Rupert Standish
Trent Ford   as   Jeremy Blond
Jeremy Northam   as   Ivor Novello
Bob Ballaban   as   Morris Weissman

(Below Stairs)
Alan Bates   as  Jennings
Helen Mirren  as   Mrs. Wilson
Eileen Atkins   as   Mrs. Croft
Emily Watson   as  Elsie
Richard E. Grant   as   George
Theresa Churcher  as   Bertha
Sophie Thompson   as   Dorothy
Kelly MacDonald   as   Mary Macreachran
Clive Owens   as   Robert Parks
Ryan Phillipe   as   Henry Denton
Stephen Fry   as   Inspector Thompson
Ron Webster   as   Constable Dexter

Without giving too much away, the plot runs as follows. The core of the family is the McCordle's, with William as head of the clan. His wife, Sylvia, is one of three sisters, any one of which could have married William (they drew cards). Her other two sisters (Louisa and Lavinia) are present this weekend as well, and there seems to be some affectionate rivalry between Sylvia and Louisa, each of whom rather regrets their choice of husband. Sir William apparently supports most of his friends and relations, with an allowance to some and business investments in others. For some undisclosed reason, he's decided to withdrawn this financial support from most of them, which, of course, they're desperate to stop.

Below stairs, they gossip about their employers, work literally from sunup to sundown, and run their lives as best they can around the influence that those above exert. On this particular weekend, they're filled to overflowing with the visiting entourages of the lordly guests (each of whom will be called by the name of their employer. For example; Mary Macreachran becomes Trentham-to whom she is employed as a lady's maid-for all intents and purposes), Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Croft wage private war on one another, and one of the best moments of the film comes while the house staff arranges itself around their dinner table according to their employers's standings (a countess ranks higher than a ladyship and so two maidservant's switch chairs). A poignant moment out of time occurs while the servants cluster in dark rooms, hover in stairwells and around corners and at doorways, and listen to visiting film star Ivor Novello (who actually did exist and write the songs that Jeremy Northam sings so beautifully) sing at the piano, while their masters loll about in shining dresses and tuxedos, secure in the light.

And of course, there is a murder.

I kinda love
The first word that sprung to mind after seeing Gosford Park was the somewhat over-used "overrated". And the word stuck. Robert Altman can do so much better than this (and thank God for that).

Bitca gives an excellent overview of the theme and plot of the movie - actually, reading about it seems infinitely clearer than seeing it. One critic summed it up nicely for me:

I guess you could make a drinking game out of it. You could take a swig every time somebody comes on screen and you have no idea who they are or what their purpose in the film is. You could also take two swigs every time a great British actor is woefully misused. (Widgett Walls,

The upstairs-downstairs motive is interesting, but thoroughly confusing as most of the servants carry two names - their own and their employers'. Only the last five minutes did I feel remotely confident that I knew who most of the people were by name.

Some of the actors manage to give worthwhile performances, such as Maggie Smith, but in my opinion, it is rather embarassing to have to see Stephen Fry as the ridiculous detective - a brilliant actor horribly wasted.

(As for the murder mystery, no, it is not central, and again, that is a good thing. I am not particularly clever at guessing in whodunits, rather the opposite, but it didn't take me very long to figure out neither who nor why - and this cannot be a good sign.)

This movie has all of Robert Altman's trademark features:
  • No single lead actor
  • multiple characters talking all at once, some mumbling
  • waltzing camera shots with few real close ups
  • viewpoints of multiple characters presented (some simultaneously)
  • a dialog scene totally trampled by a simultaneous musical piece
While these features can make his movies difficult to follow, they give a very real-life feel to the movie, and a more complete feeling of what things must have been like. He also made a significant effort for this movie to be historically authentic at least in the small details.

The first half of this movie focuses primarly on character development, and the remaining half on trying to figure out who did the murder and why. If you watch carefully enough, it is fairly obvious "whodunit", but the why is not all there until the very end.

Although I enjoyed this movie, I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much without turning on the DVD subtitles, as many lines were so deep in the background that they were difficult to hear, and the thick british accents didn't help this american much either.

People who didn't like this movie probably weren't able to cope with Altman's complex chaotic style, or missed the point for one of the other reasons above.

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