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banner Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 20:03 GMT
Altman meets Agatha in Gosford Park
Ryan Phillippe and Kristin Scott Thomas
Comparisons with Upstairs, Downstairs are inevitable
By the BBC's Neil Smith

Gosford Park boasts one of the finest collections of British acting talent ever assembled on the silver screen.

Ironically, though, it took an American director - veteran auteur Robert Altman, 76 - to bring them together in one film.

Imagine an Agatha Christie whodunnit crossed with one of Altman's trademark ensemble dramas and you have Gosford Park.

The cast list reads like a who's who of Actors Equity, from old hands like Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Eileen Atkins and Helen Mirren to rising stars like Clive Owen, Richard E Grant and Emily Watson.

Maggie Smith
Maggie Smith: One of a stellar cast
Such is the wealth of thespian talent on display that it's no surprise teen heart-throb Ryan Phillippe sticks out like a sore thumb - even without the preposterous Scottish accent he adopts in his role as a Hollywood actor masquerading as a manservant in 30s England.

His is just one of the plethora of plot strands screenwriter Julian Fellowes weaves into an elaborate tapestry of intrigue, satire and brittle social commentary.

Comparisons with Upstairs, Downstairs are inevitable as the camera follows the masters and servants who assemble for a weekend shooting party through the salons, bedrooms, kitchens and grounds of the eponymous manor.

Through the eyes of Kelly Macdonald's meek Scottish maid, we are privy to extramarital liaisons, shady business transactions, country sports and at least one murder.

Painstaking

There's even a dose of celebrity in 30s musical icon Ivor Novello - Jeremy Northam - not to mention the obligatory police inspector, ripely played by Stephen Fry.

As in Altman's 1993 movie Short Cuts, there are too many dovetailing narratives for all of them to be resolved satisfactorily. Indeed, the search for the murderer is probably the film's least rewarding element.

And having painstakingly built a fascinating study of England's entrenched social strata in the interbellum years, it is a pity the picture ends on such a hurried, abrupt note.

In the end, then, it is the cast that counts, and it would be invidious to single out any for special praise.

Suffice to say that Bates' imperious butler, Atkins' embittered cook and Scott Thomas' bored trophy wife are by no means the only delights to savour.

For all its period trappings and mystery clichés, Gosford Park is all about class and its intractable sway over English manners and morals.

And class is exactly what oozes from every frame of this sumptuous, old-fashioned epic.

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Watch a clip from Gosford Park
Gosford Park
See also:

24 Jan 01 | Entertainment
UK film honours Robert Altman
28 Jan 02 | Film
Bafta nominations in full
01 Feb 02 | Reviews
Gosford Park: Your views
05 Feb 02 | Reviews
Gosford Park: Press views
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