It may have been significantly funded by the Film Council, and it may boast a formidable array of British thespians, yet Gosford Park is most definitely a Robert Altman film. There's the trademark overlapping dialogue, the huge ensemble cast, and the freewheeling attitude to storytelling. While some of Altman's finest films - - McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye - - have been ironic deconstructions of American genres, here he casts a quizzical eye over the English country house movie.
Gosford Park unfolds over a November weekend in 1932, when Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Sir William (Michael Gambon) have invited a mixture of relatives and friends for a shooting party on their estate. Among the guests are a Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban) and the singer-film star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), while downstairs is a hive of activity and gossip among the domestic staff: visiting personal maids and valets such as Mary (Kelly Macdonald) and Parks (Clive Owen) will have to be shown the ropes by the regular Gosford employees.
There's a murder an hour into Gosford Park, but this isn't an Agatha Christie whodunnit - - the killing is just a device to keep the characters indoors and to shape the narrative (though Stephen Fry's bumbling efforts as a police inspector almost seem to come from a different, coarser film). The house itself meanwhile, with its network of labyrinthine corridors, serves as a microcosm of '30s English society. If the aristocrats upstairs are portrayed as venal, exploitative and unprincipled, the servants themselves are nevertheless guilty of imitating their employers' strict hierarchies and protocols.
Gosford Park never achieves the bitter-sweet resonance of Jean Renoir's La Règle Du Jeu, one of its key influences, but it's still a supple slice of entertainment, with some classy acting contributions. Particularly impressive are Emily Watson's worldly-wise housemaid, Helen Mirren's buttoned-up housekeeper and Maggie Smith's imperious, scene-stealing Countess.
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Altman's playful satire on the inter-war English class system may not be the director's most substantial work, but it's shot and acted with admirable fluency and flair.