Robert Altman is definitely one of those hit-or-miss directors, his stinkers far outnumbering his classics. (Note how everybody still lauds him as "the director of Nashville and The Player" while glossing over lesser recent efforts like Dr. T and the Women and The Gingerbread Man.) But he scores a direct hit with Gosford Park, a wry take on Agatha Christie mysteries as well as the old TV series Upstairs, Downstairs.
Set during a hunting party at a posh English estate in 1932, not long before World War II would bring the butler-and-maid world of English aristocracy to an end, Gosford Park jumps back and forth between the snooty aristocrats taking tea and brandy upstairs and the down-to-earth, gossipy servants below.
Halfway through the film, someone is murdered (I'm not spoiling anything; the movie's very poster says as much), and in comes Stephen Fry as a bumbling police inspector to find out whodunnit. Though I figured it out early on, I hope that just means the film isn't really about the mystery behind the murder, but about the people along the sidelines. Not only does it expertly dissect the distinctions between the ruling class and the serving class, but it brings to light all the subclassifications within each world.
Altman, always the "actor's director", is given a dream cast of England's brightest screen talents, including Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Richard E. Grant, Clive Owen (who could singlehandedly make James Bond hip again), and my beloved Emily Watson. It's hard to go wrong with this bunch, and fortunately they have actor Julian Fellowes' witty, knowing script ("based on an idea" by Altman and costar Bob Balaban, whatever that means) to work from.
This is a smart film that gets even smarter the more I think about it. As a portrait of a world not knowing it's on the brink of crumbling, as a class comedy, as a study of loss and revenge, Gosford Park gets it all right. Even Ryan Phillippe is good in it! I could go on and on, but it would be more fun to discuss it with somebody who's actually seen it, rather than ramble on alone. But go see it, at least for Maggie Smith's hilarious performance as a bitchy old dowager.