Gosford Park

Robert Altman’s latest fascinates as it meanders

Rated 4.0 Set among aristocrats at a big country estate in the 1930s, Gosford Park percolates somewhere between the formal-dress British murder mystery and the macabre social comedy of Jean Renoir’s classic, The Rules of the Game. It’s also one of Robert Altman’s multi-character forays, and as such it tends to meander and fascinate at the same time.

Seemingly, everyone has something to hide in this deceptively leisurely drama of social masks, arbitrary roles, ritual identities and the secrets of material survival. There is a murder mystery as well, but it’s slow in arriving and deliberately diffuse and peculiar in its solution—rather as if murder were simply the most fatal of the ritual acts of half-submerged identity.

Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott-Thomas all do sharp caricatures of assorted smooth-and-nasty aristocrats. Clive Owen, Emily Watson and Helen Mirren all do especially good work as variously compromised servants. Jeremy Northam, as the real-life movie actor Ivor Novello, and Kelly MacDonald as Smith’s neophyte maid, are intriguingly ambiguous as two key characters who find themselves "in between."