Murder mysteries, like all genre pieces, are inherently conservative, not only in the sense that they are bound by rules and traditions, but in the way that disorder is introduced in order to be banished. Normality is disrupted, but chaos is staved off by the solving of a puzzle. Motifs may remain messy and unpleasant, but the criminal method and the proper measure of justice can be determined by simple logic and an inherited sense of fair play.
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park offers the odd experience of watching the most loose-limbed of modern directors mingle his multidirectional observational style with the hidebound form of a traditional English murder mystery. It’s a combination with benefits that go both ways; the story seems deepened and Altman’s scattershot narrative approach seems justified. The director’s slow accretion of seemingly random detail doesn’t clash with his setting and plot so much as mesh with it, and the results are like an avant-garde Merchant-Ivory film or one of Agatha Christie’s clever constructions gone all cubist.
Set in November 1932, the story takes place at the English country manor of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) where a large gathering of relatives and friends and friends of friends have assembled for a weekend shooting party. Most of the guests have brought along their own valet or maid and, this being an Altman film, almost everyone gets a share of screen time. As a result, we have a primary cast of 15, mostly played by recognizable and esteemed English actors, with another dozen or so people hovering in the background. Even with a running time of two hours and 17 minutes there are a lot of characters to feature, let alone properly introduce to the audience, and the first hour or so of the movie — before the murder — may be disconcerting for those used to conventional exposition.
But the initial confusion — which isn’t pervasive if you pay close attention — is a natural byproduct of an approach that Altman has been honing for years, though only in intermittent films. It’s a kind of layered naturalism where overlapping conversations, a prowling camera and an accumulation of seemingly isolated, if not inert, scenes give the viewer a heightened sense of place, but only a shifting sense of what may or may not be significant.
It helps that he’s dealing here with familiar types, and while it may take a couple of viewings to sift through all the details, the gist is immediately clear. Upstairs are Sir William, an old-school son of a bitch and rotting emblem of the old patriarchy; his young wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), bored to death with her well-made marriage; Sir William’s tart-tongued sister Constance (Maggie Smith); a handful of toffs and their wives and, oddly enough, a real-life personage, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam). Novello was a popular matinee idol in England in the ’20s and ’30s, as well as a writer-composer-director, but is best known in America as the star of Hitchcock’s 1925 film The Lodger — as well as a lesser remake that Smith refers to in the film as The Dodger. For her to get the title right would be too much of an acknowledgment of the lower-class Novello. Another vulgar intruder is the requisite American, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a Hollywood director in England doing research for his new movie, Charlie Chan in London.
The downstairs denizens include George (Richard E. Grant), the first footman whose sneering demeanor belies his servitude; Sir William’s valet, Probert (Derek Jacobi), timid and dedicated; Jennings, the butler (a sorely underused Alan Bates); and Elsie (Emily Watson), the head housemaid who’s having a secret affair with the dastardly Sir William. We also meet Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), respectively the housekeeper and head cook, and two sisters with a secret; Robert Parks (Clive Owen), on whose identity the plot hinges and Weissman’s mysterious valet (Ryan Phillippe).
The murder, foreshadowed by ominous close-ups of very sharp kitchen knives and bottles of poison, signals the entrance of the comically inept Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry). The murder’s back story is, in the tradition, both complicated and heavily dependent on coincidence and, in true English fashion, signifies the return of the repressed, as past sins come home to roost. At any rate, the murder mystery doesn’t seem particularly compelling, just as all the servant-master stuff covers well-trod ground (as it will seem especially to anyone familiar with the extensive examinations of the “Upstairs, Downstairs” series).
What’s left is the pleasure of watching good actors nail their roles and a septuagenarian director’s eccentric vision in full flower. It may be a triumph of style over substance, but it’s still a triumph.
Opens Friday at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.