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[whitespace] 'Gosford Park'
Valet to a Doll: Ryan Phillippe ministers to the needs of Kristin Scott Thomas.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Robert Altman's 'Gosford Park' turns up new clues in a traditional English manor-house mystery

By Richard von Busack

DIRECTING Gosford Park, Robert Altman supposedly told Kristin Scott Thomas that the experience was like spilling "pearls on a parquet floor." The film looks just about that priceless, but it's hardly that chaotic.

Gosford Park is purportedly an English manor-house mystery--vintage 1932--where the usual gang of wealthy peers has arrived to lounge and blast some pheasants. A distinguished cast embodies these idlers. The lady of the house is Scott Thomas, who married a true toad for money.

Charles Dance loiters in the background, with a mustache. Dance, that reliable cad of the 1980s, seems now on the way to roles as a peppery British officer, a la C. Aubrey Smith. Richard E. Grant plays the footman who holds your coat and snickers; Alan Bates appears as the baleful old butler.

Watching the proceedings are two nervous outsiders: a Jewish-American movie producer (Bob Balaban) researching a Charlie Chan picture, and real-life matinee idol, playwright and cocktail pianist Ivor Norvello (Jeremy Northam), spending a trysting weekend with these fictional characters.

The frame of this comedy/drama is traditional, but the results are quite different--Altmanized. The victim might as well be named "Colonel Mustard" for all the mourning that goes on over his demise; he scarcely merits a sniffle. (Played by Michael Gambon, he's a truculent, gross old baronet; he belongs dead, and everyone knows it.) There are many clues of collusion below the deck; here at Gosford Park, more chickens come home to roost than at sunset at Foster Farms.

The servants are as snobbish and addicted to rank as their employers. Some of the domestics include Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, and Clive Owens of Croupier. Presently, the police arrive, in the form of Stephen Fry, as inept a copper as the Real Inspector Hound. Like Jacques Tati's M. Hulot, Fry wears a raincoat, smokes an improbably long pipe and keeps introducing himself over and over again.

Altman studies this mansion avidly and challenges the viewer to keep up with him as he sniffs around. While Gosford Park isn't a film drunk on swank, the furnishings of the manor house could have been made to satisfy the film's primary snob: a countess played by the divine Maggie Smith. She can tell machine-made lace from handmade, homemade marmalade from store-bought. Smith's yum-yumming over a lovely piece of toast is as dry a bit of comedy as we've had since Alec Guinness died. While the cast is huge, Altman keeps the pace and the connections clear, through a cut here, a conspiratorial glance over a cigarette there.

Gosford Park is more than Agatha Christie fluff though. Altman is fascinated with the human cost of running an English country house during the classic era--how the hunger for money and class was disguised under an uncertain veneer of manners, how the painful complicity of servants kept the fiction going.

You can compare Gosford Park to Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game and not have it look pale. Gosford Park starts off the new year on the right foot. This is what Titanic could have been, with the skullduggery thick and savory among a group of creepers and climbers and impostors.

Gosford Park (R; 137 min.), directed by Robert Altman, written by Julian Fellowes, photographed by Andrew Dunn and starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban and Charles Dance, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the January 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2002 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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