*Gosford Park (R)
Oh, how we love and despise our English cousins. The way they live in those giant houses, dress for dinner, and have the touch with servants. The American public can barely get enough of the royal family, even after Diana's death.
On the other hand, love of the Brits is a guilt-fraught pleasure. After all, we threw their damn tea in the harbor over 200 years ago to get out from under their colonial oppression, and even if we'd love to have a butler, few egalitarian Americans would dare admit it.
But now, Robert Altman has made the perfect movie for reluctant Anglophiles. Gosford Park is a classic Dorothy Sayerstype murder mystery with a soupon of class and historical consciousness in the mix. The film takes place in 1932 at the home of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), a wealthy and lecherous English gentleman, married to the beautiful and cold Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Their extended family has come for a weekend shooting party, which means that during the day they shoot pheasant, and at night they snipe at each other.
That's the upstairs. Below stairs the many servants required to run such a large house and care for the guests work night and day (and engage in various shenanigans of their own). But despite the clear separation between the two worlds (emphasized by some lovely cinematography by Andrew Dunn, who also worked on Monkeybone), it is evident that the barrier between the servants and masters is quite permeable. There's plenty of sex, gossip and even friendship that is shared between the two groups, and their interrelationship becomes especially important when Sir William is murdered midway through the film, and everyone becomes involved.
Like most of Robert Altman's films, this is a star-studded, extremely effective cast (although in this case it is almost all British luminaries such as Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and Derek Jacobi) playing well-drawn characters with intersecting agendas. With so much going on and so many distinct personalities, the screenplay can be very confusing, even toward the end.
No matter, you're in the hands of a master so just sit back and be entertained. You won't be transformed, thinner, kinder or wiser at the end of Gosford Park, but you will be well amused by a glorious, pitch-perfect British romp. And you'll have no American guilt. What could be better?