Gosford Park

You can't be on both teams at once...

I can hear reasonably well, and I love all things British, but Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" has tested the limits of my theatrical patience once again: his brilliant ability to film as if we were overhearing conversation at a party (remember "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" or "Nashville") leaves me wanting to be a listener who actually has heard all the conversation.

Altman mixes British accents and a low-pitched voice level with his patented overlapping realistic dialogue to frustrate me, who doesn't want to miss a bit of it but does. I must look forward to the DVD with its subtitle capability. Otherwise, I’ve lost half the dialogue in the mix of gabby characters and roving camera.

However, the film is rich in cars, costuming, and upstairs/downstairs for a delightful take on wealth and class rigidity of England in 1932. It’s a weekend shooting party at Gosford Park; the host, Sir William, played crustily by Michael Gambon, has the temerity to be self made and necessary to the financial stability of many attending aristocrats.

The German situation is not an issue and the fragile world economy is obliquely hinted at only in the desperate finances of a few fawning relatives.

The drama is downstairs, coordinated by Helen Mirren and Alan Bates as the embodiment of the stiff upper lip of the lower orders. Although an aristocrat says about a servant overhearing a conversation, "Don’t worry, he’s nobody," Altman makes the servants so pervasive that they are actually every bodies. An actor impersonating a servant is told bluntly, "You can’t be on both teams at once." It’s tough downstairs.

Upstairs the reigning snob is Maggie Smith’s countess. An unforgettable conveyor of the putdown, she is never better than when cutting on the bourgeois film star and the fussing American producer. Neither belongs in her frigid world.

The actual murder mystery is a plot device, seemingly unimportant to the guests and the director. The film rests on the tension surrounding the classes, birthrights, birth parents, and access to power and money. For these themes and his layers of superb actors, Altman is the ultimate ringmaster. For atmosphere and style, Altman is worth every bit of lost dialogue.