Haves and have nots

Ryan Phillipe and Emily Watson discuss the business of valet and housemaid in <i>Gosford Park</i>.

Ryan Phillipe and Emily Watson discuss the business of valet and housemaid in Gosford Park.

Rated 2.0

Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is a social satire cum murder mystery set during a fall 1932 weekend at an English country estate. The film plays like a loose update of Jean Renoir’s 1939 The Rules of the Game that turns into a game of Clue in the third act as it attempts to illuminate through sudden revelation the preceding sketchy characterizations and fallout of class distinction. It appears on the recent top-10 lists of several prominent critics.

I partly understand the lavish praise for the iconoclastic director’s latest ensemble piece. The cast of nearly 30 principal characters, which rivals Altman’s Nashville and Short Cuts in panoramic breadth, reads like a Who’s Who of mostly British thespians. The period sets, costumes and social rituals from ornate manor moldings to servants’ attire to a regimented fowl shoot are vividly detailed. Also, Julian Fellowes’ script (based on “an idea” by Altman and Bob Balaban) provides a brisk fix for audiences in need of an Upstairs, Downstairs or Agatha Christie fix.

I was not enthralled by the film’s generally shallow characters, meandering narrative or immediate as well as lasting impact. A gaggle of snobbish aristocrats gather with relatives, friends and servants to honk about their self-importance, cackle about one another’s misfortune, squawk about their own misfortune, gossip, joke about their stations in life and figuratively defecate on one another’s shoes. So what? The haves and have nots alternately segregate and interact, and their symbiotic relationships are colored in varying shades of loyalty and loathing as bad manners, family skeletons, heartbreak, decayed marriages, adultery, schmoozing, pecking orders, boredom and shaky financial security rear their ugly heads.

Some scenes are marvelously conceived and executed. My favorite is the interlude when the privileged of the manor ignore the post-dinner songs of a guest (“Don’t applaud. It only encourages him,” says one caustic dame) while the servants listen en masse behind closed doors and in stairwells. The film has occasional bursts of humanity, community, wit and substance but primarily feels content to sacrifice focus to naturalism, dialogue to Altman’s trademark overlapping technique and insight to a waning sense of purpose. The sexual adventures of both a chambermaid and a carousing valet are left underdeveloped as carnal knowledge bulldozes class boundaries. Altman telegraphs to death the availability of guns, poison and knives as possible murder weapons and even exposes the true identity of a covert manor guest with a close-up stare from a camera.

Maggie Smith as a haughty countess has the most memorable moments of the film. She spits out the script’s best lines as if acidity and arrogance were endangered virtues. Balaban plays the gay Jewish vegetarian American movie producer Weissman, who is laying the groundwork for a Charlie Chan picture that spoofs the very social gathering he has infiltrated. Michael Gambon, who was in Sacramento recently to portray Lyndon B. Johnson in HBO’s Paths to War, plays the lecherous lord of the manor. Kristin Scott Thomas is perfect as his cold, calculating wife who nags: “You always complain if people look down on you, and then you act like a peasant.”

Clive Owen (Croupier) portrays a valet with a secret past and Jeremy Northam plays Ivor Novello, a real-life matinee idol who entertains the manor guests with his piano playing and singing in Noel Coward fashion. The rest of the cast includes Alan Bates as butler, Richard E. Grant as footman, Emily Watson as sympathetic head housemaid, Stephen Fry as bumbling detective (a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Jacques Tati) and Helen Mirren looking credibly drab but proud as head housekeeper.

“How do you put up with these people?” Weissman finally asks Novello about his affluent hosts. “You forget. I earn my living by impersonating them,” he says. Halfway through the film I was wondering why Altman had spent so much time and talent on capturing such underwhelming characters on screen and could only come up with the very same answer.